Sunday, March 30, 2014

Have I Got a Book for You! SACRE BLEU by Christopher Moore

Hold onto your paint brushes here we go:

We all know that Christopher Moore has a wicked sense of the absurd plus a deranged sense of humor bar none. But in SACRE BLEU, A Comedy of Art, Christopher has outdone even himself. 

La Belle Epoque. Quick, think of a defining color. Does blue...uh, bleu come to mind?

Forget all you know about the French Impressionist painters and their ilk, Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Manet, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Seurat, Berthe Morisot, Gaugin, Pissarro, etc. Everything you were taught or read about them was, more or less, not so true.

At least, according to Christopher Moore who brazenly defends his position:

I know what you're thinking: 'Well, thanks loads, Chris, now you've ruined art for everyone."

You're welcome. It's my pleasure. (The man is unrepentant.) I simply set out to write a novel about the color blue; I can't remember why now. When you start with a concept that vague, you have to narrow your scope fairly quickly or it will get out of hand, so every early in my research great bits of history had to go by the wayside so I'd have room to make stuff up.

So what I'd be asking right now, if I were you, is what, among this big blue lie, is true? What really happened?

First, I drew the characters' personalities mostly from accounts written by people who knew them, many of the accounts of the Impressionists coming from Jean Renoir's biography of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 'Renoir, My Father'. Jean Renoir had been wounded in World War I and had come home to Paris to recover in his father's apartment, where the artist recalled his life to his son in an interestingly sanitized version...

The entire time frame of SACRE BLEU was constructed around that July afternoon in 1890 when Vincent [Van Gogh] shot himself because of a fact I stumbled across very early in my research. Vincent Van Gogh did shoot himself in that field in Auvers where three roads converge - shot himself in the chest - then walked a mile cross-country to Dr. Gachet's house seeking treatment. Vincent and Theo [his brother] are buried beside each other within sight of that field in Auvers. I have stood in that spot, and walked from there to the doctor's house, which is a museum now, and I thought, What kind of painter does that? Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical attention? It made no sense at all.....His death was both a mystery and tragedy.

As far as the history and mystical properties of the ultramarine pigment, some details are based in truth, most are just constructed for the story.

The pigment was, for a long time, more valuable than gold...

The talented (I might even say 'brilliantly talented') Christopher Moore who is, admittedly, an acquired taste for some (thankfully I acquired it ages ago), has outdone himself this time out. Wait, I already said that, well what the heck, I'm saying it again. I thought that nothing could top my heretofore very favorite Moore book, A DIRTY JOB, but darn if Christopher hasn't proven me wrong. (And by the way all you dirty jobbers out there, Christopher is working on a sequel. Yeah, I know. O.M.G.)

SACRE BLEU (and don't you love that title?) is a colorfully bawdy (how could it not be?) fable which purports to explain how blue became Sacre Bleu thereby changing the course of art history. That's all.

Ultramarine was a hard to come by pigment once upon a time. It was created by grinding lapis lazuli into powder. Artists would purchase either the powder (which whey would mix with certain ingredients, i.e. egg yolk or whatever they used to make paint) or they'd buy the lapis and grind it themselves. Some artists preferring to do everything from scratch. As time went by, tubes of paint became available but early on painters would seek out someone known as the colorman from whom to purchase 'the makings'.

But this is not merely a tall tale of the color blue...uh, bleu, it is also the story of how certain artists of the time - bohemians all - late 19th century - were heavily influenced not only by the expensive pigment, but by a certain highly sexed muse who appeared out of nowhere (in differing, ravishing guises) to send the various artists into artistic (not to mention, physical) raptures which, in many cases, doomed them unknowingly to an early death. What, did you think all that talent and brilliance required no penance?

But according to Christopher Moore, who should know, in between the painting and the rapturous boinking, spectacular art was created. Unfortunately most of those paintings disappeared and were never seen again. Hint: they are part of a whole mumbo-jumbo mind-boggling recycling process.

'Bleu' as the lascivious and rather pragmatic muse is known to her intimates has been around for ages - literally. Though shifting - jumping to and fro - as she does from body to voluptuous body, one cannot tell her ancient status. Her traveling companion, an ugly, scrunched up and very odious (not to mention malodorous) little man known as 'the colorman' is apparently her boss. For millennium after millennium, the two have been mixing the blue pigment, messing with artists, and up to no good.

The story begins with the death Vincent Van Gogh. Suicide? Murder? It's a puzzle. Why was the Dutch painter so afraid of his colorman? (Perhaps because he was no dope.)

To help get to the bottom of that mystery (and others), Christopher Moore turns to our hero, Lucien Lessard, a hapless baker with painting aspirations who, in the meantime, works at the family bakery in Montmartre, hub of the Parisian bohemian art world. Here is where everyone in the area lines up for fresh baked baguettes every morning. We know they're fresh because Lucien's mother breaks the first loaf over Lucien's head to get the proper snap which tells her the bread is done. Lucien, as might be understood, is not all that happy with this arrangement.

Because Lucien's father was not only a baker, but a painter in his spare time (who came to a sad end - a story we won't go into) Lucien is friendly with several of the painters who routinely hang out in Montmartre; painting and boinking, boinking and painting - the usual.

At any rate, Lucien is friends with and has been tutored by (among others) Pierre-August Renoir and Camille Pissarro whom he reveres, but he is also a pal of the ultimate prince (well, actually a Count) of debauchery, the diminutive painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec who comes off in this book as a lascivious goat but still someone you'd want to know and maybe even have affection for. Is there such a thing as a likable lascivious goat? Is there a house of ill repute which Toulouse-Lautrec has not frequented?

In their pursuit of the muse who in the guise of the beautiful Juliette has made off with Lucien's heart (not literally, figuratively) the two intrepids join forces to hunt the secret mystery source of the color blue...uh, bleu AND the location of the venomous little colorman's stash. To that end, Lucien and Toulouse-Lautrec make a great pair of fumbling detectives. So much fun to imagine.

The devil-may-care painter makes a perfect, if slightly nutso, side kick for Lucien as they take on the case of the missing muse. I most especially liked when, tailing the colorman, Toulouse-Lautrec fastens mechanical lifts to his feet (an invention perfected for him by a friendly neighborhood inventor who otherwise spends most of his time attempting to teach rats to drive a small chariot) which enable him to walk like a regular sized man - sort of, albeit a trifle awkwardly.

The vision of past and present, real and surreal, has never been more convoluted as Lucien learns of the true power of Sacre Bleu and he and we learn to what lengths a man will go for the woman, uh, muse, uh, phantom, he loves.

This is an utterly beguiling book if you don't mind Christopher Moore's occasional use of bawdy language and totally outrageous artistic conceits - I didn't. I also loved that actual Impressionist paintings were included in the text which added a nice verisimilitude to the whole shebang.

A dazzling book. Maybe not what you'd expect, but then, you knew that going in. It is Christopher Moore after all. The man has no shame. HA!

P.S. This would make a fabulous movie. Is Luc Besson available?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday Salon: To get you in the mood for the next book review.

Pierre-August Renoir - source

Pierre-August Renoir - source

Vincent Van Gogh - source

Vincent Van Gogh - source

Vincent Van Gogh - source

Claude Monet - source

Claude Monet - source

Claude Monet

Paul Gaughin - source

Paul Gaughin - source

Berthe Morisot - source

Berthe Morisot - source

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec - source

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet - source

Edouard Manet - source

I don't have to introduce you to the French Impressionists and their ilk, so this post is just a visual reminder for when we get to talking about The Book, you'll be in the mood. Pay attention to the blue.

Swift synopsis: In the past ultramarine blue was a very difficult color to produce - the artists ground their own from lapis lazuli or bought the color from someone who was generally known as 'the color man'. They either bought the ingredients or the color itself, ready made. Many artists preferred grinding their own colors. Ultramarine was an expensive commodity and highly prized.

You can occasionally come across a painting (in and out of a museum) seen missing areas which were originally meant to be in blue. The spaces are blank waiting (in vain) for the artist to be able to get his hands on the blue. (I learned this from reading 'The Book'.)

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Film: (2010) THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC

Where have I been that I never heard of this film until last week? (I know, I know, I'm always lamenting. Can't help it, it's my way.) 

French film director, writer and producer Luc Besson (He of FIFTH ELEMENT fame - remember how much fun that film was? Made no sense, but hey, since when has that ever stopped Luc?) is not exactly an unknown quantity so stands to reason his name rang a dim bell when I first came across mention of this film.

THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC (Orig. title: Les Adventures Extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec) is nothing less than the frisky French love child of Indiana Jones and Nelly Bly with soupcons of JURASSIC PARK and THE MUMMY, not to mention THE PERILS OF PAULINE, thrown in for good measure.

Jacques Tardi

The film is based on the popular comic books created by Jacques Tardi though the screenplay (according to IMDB) was written by Luc Besson. Little of the story makes any real sense so if you're expecting logic and linear story telling and you're not charmed by absurdity, pass this by.

But you'd be missing a delightful time at the movies. This is a boisterous adventure tale with nothing more on its frenetic mind than to show you a good time. Though the film drags a bit in parts and is probably a tad too long, those are minor faults when seen as a preposterous whole. The film has little nudity or blood-letting which, in and of itself, is remarkable, considering - proves once again that neither of those two hackneyed items are necessary for a romp of this sort. I'd hate to think what an American film-maker might have made of it.

I'm assuming that the characters established in the comic books are in the film as well and may be familiar to some (not to me). They all have a certain cartoon outlandishness (in make-up and hair and general unkempt grooming), especially the cops and the big game hunter and the...well, really, all the men in the film seem to have escaped from the stage of the nearest broadest burlesque. This may take you aback at first, it did me, but I got used to it.

The main setting is Paris, early 20th century. La Belle Epoque. The city, needless to say, looks fresh and attractive, full of lovely art nouveau buildings peopled by self-indulgent, pleasure seeking boulevardiers who love to manger, boire et etre joyeux. Paris will probably never again be as beautiful.

The style of the film is episodic (I suppose it would have to be), several incidents (if you can call a prehistoric pterodactyl brought back to life to terrorize the skies and the sheep population of Paris, a mere incident) occur at a rapid pace as we're first introduced (by the charming speaking voice-over of Bernard Lanneau) to the nearly empty streets of night time Paris but then we quickly jump to the Egyptian desert where Mlle. Adele Blanc-Sec is on an expedition in the hot desert sun to discover and bring back to Paris a certain ancient mummy.

But, as will so often happen, bad guys with bad teeth show up to stall her quest and Mlle. Adele is immediately placed before a firing squad. Of course there's a hair-breadth escape, then we head back to Paris where a certain hapless young man (Nicolas Giraud) - who happens to work at the Natural History Museum - has his fancy captured by Mlle. Blanc-Sec and the adventures she writes about and before you can say, 'Sacre bleu!', he is caught up in the Mlle's various schemes.

Adele Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is a fearlessly intrepid reporter sent off to foreign locations by her paper to scout out and report back, step by undaunted step, on the most lurid phantasmagorical escapades she can involve herself in. Nelly Bly eat your heart out. But when her boss sends her to Peru to climb Machu Pichu, the headstrong Mlle Adele instead heads to Egypt to liberate an ancient mummy. Why? Well you may ask.

Adele is the equal of any man when it comes to action, adventure and derring-do. Not bothering to play by the rules and smarter than any man in any room, nothing stops the resourceful Mlle. from the completion of her mission. As played by the beautiful Louise Bourgoin, Adele is the sort of single-minded female that most unsettles those of the opposite sex. In short, she is a harridan of the first order. She is also of a certain age and unmarried. Une femme de carrier.

A vague idea of the machinations of the plot:

Because her beloved twin sister lies (or rather, sits up) in a macabre comatose state, the result of an awkward and rather painful looking accident about which modern-day medicine can do nothing, Mlle. Adele Blanc-Sec will stop at nothing to bring back to life the only physician she thinks can help her twin: the brilliant court physician of a multi-millennia-dead Egyptian pharaoh. Makes perfect sense to me.

Once the mummy is actually back in Paris (after much trial and hair-raising tribulation), Mlle. must contact Professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian), the one man who actually has the power to revitalize the mummy. Unfortunately the wizened Professor is currently in jail awaiting execution (by guillotine) for enabling a certain pterodactyl (remember him?) to kill a couple of people.

Because of some mysterious mumbo-jumbo performed by the professor, the creature was hatched from a giant egg on display at the Natural History Museum.

Jacky Nercessian as the old Professor with mysterious powers.

Never say die, the indefatigable Mlle. dons several disguises in several failed attempts to stage a prison break. Somehow she must free the Professor so he can revive the mummy who will then use long-lost medical skills to revive the sister who is languishing in a comatose state. Simple - no?

Adele even beseeches the French President for a pardon of the old Professor but all is lost when she is herself arrested - in a gross misunderstanding - for trying to assassinate the President.

There are several wonderful scenes in the film, most especially one where as a last resort Mlle. Blanc-Sec uses the obliging pterodactyl to help free the Professor, another where the creature can be seen up in the sky disrupting a flock of geese who comically break formation. A small thing, but very amusing. Then there's that plucky Scottish terrier, the charming little dog belonging to the jovial French President, watch while the two play fetch on the Palace lawn. Watch while the pterodactyl flies overhead looking for a snack...Wait, I can't watch!! Quelle horreur! No, no a thousand times no!

Not to worry. Luc Besson is no fool.

Then there's the scene where the mummy comes to life and with a tres charmante French attitude explains that he's not a doctor but a physicist. Oops! This blackened heap of bones steals the movie. Which only goes to show that the French language and an insouciant attitude can cover a lot of sins.

Regis Royer as the mummy Patmosis - he steals the movie.

The scenes near the end when an entire brigade of mummies freed from the confines of the museum, headed by Ramses himself, take a night time stroll through Paris are just wonderful. Especially when Ramses, viewing the Louvre Museum, states that a pyramid would go very nicely right in the middle of the courtyard.

Last but not least, in the last couple of scenes in the film, Mlle. Adele wears the most luscious, the most charming, the most fetching chapeau ever created to sit atop the beautiful head of a turn of the century French miss. I was swooning. (A gorgeous hat will do that to a woman.)

Not a great film, certainly, nor one overly brilliant or inventive, but still, worth a viewing or two. I didn't know what to expect, but what I got was just about right.

The Netflix crowd warns strongly NOT under any circumstances to watch the dubbed version of the film, so I'll go along with that. I dislike dubbed in mish-mash anyway. I love hearing the French language and don't mind at all reading the sub-titles. The film is currently available for streaming.

Since this is Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films, television or audio/visuals other bloggers are talking about this week. Todd has all the relevant links.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Though I truly enjoyed all three of these books, my favorite was THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD which is Book Two in Alexander McCall Smith's charming Corduroy Mansions series. I admit that a Pimlico Terrier named Freddie de la Hay had a lot to do with it. I'm a sucker for dogs with more than one name - provided the author delivers and the book isn't just about dogs with cutesy names doing cutesy things. Which this isn't. (Didn't Steve Martin once have a cat named Dr. Johnson? I've always wondered what you'd call an animal with that sort of moniker. I mean, do you just call him Doc for short? Alas, my mind is wandering.)

An aside: I never did read the first book in the Corduroy Mansions series, but I'm not always a stickler for reading these things in order unless it's an absolute imperative. (Maybe one of these days I'll do a post on series that must, absolutely MUST be read in order.)

Another aside: I am willing to admit (but not without misgivings) that Alexander McCall Smith's stories do fall under the category of cozy even if some might not like the term. My feeling is, think up something else to call it if that makes you feel better.

Nothing wrong with a good cozy far as I'm concerned even if we're not exactly sure what another reader might or might not consider 'cozy'. Here's my consideration: A book is cozy when it has a certain familiar warmth to it - a vague something we instinctively recognize (or think we do) which, even if intangible, makes the reader respond in a certain specified way - sort of like Pavlov's dog. The response must be instant - either good or bad. More than any other style of book it's the old 'I know it when I see it' routine transposed to 'I know it when I read it'. It all depends on your initial tolerance. Some people will resist 'warmth' no matter what, dismissing it as a weakness in style. There's no accounting for taste.

A cozy can be a mystery and most often is, but I think the word can be used to describe books that leave out the murder but give us the atmospherics. The prolific author Alexander McCall Smith excels at this sort of thing though of course, he also has written (and currently continues to write) two best selling mystery series.

But back to Corduroy Mansions:

The series revolves around a group of various eccentrics who live in the Pimlico section of London, in a collection of flats affectionately nicknamed Corduroy Mansions. These people live day to day lives of quiet desperation, just as most of us do. The fact that their desperation is of a decidedly more humorous bent than ours naturally makes for interesting reading. This is all due to the disarming pen of Alexander McCall Smith whose own endearing warmth can't help but find its way onto the pages of his books. Smith's tenderness for his characters is apparent in all his work. It's one of the main reason I like him so much.

I think McCall Smith is a natural empath, he must be, to have created these quirky but believably human characters whose happiness becomes, over time, so important to the reader.

And now to the cast of characters:

William French,
a melancholy, kind of wishy-washy wine merchant nearing an unsatisfactory middle age. He is the owner of:

Freddie de la Hay, an irrepressible and very clever Pimlico terrier.

Eddie French,
William's unprincipled and opportunistic son who has finally moved out having snagged a very wealthy girlfriend - they spend six months of the year in the Windward Islands proving, so far at least, that being a cad occasionally does pay off.

Marcia Light,
a caterer and well-meaning proprietor of Marcia's Table. She has her heart set on William, but he's not sure she's the right one. William is fifty years old and still picky.

Barbara Ragg,
a literary agent and fiance of the impossibly handsome, Adonis-perfect Hugh, who longs to go live on the family farm in Scotland. Barbara is currently attempting to sign the American author of the sure-to-be bestseller, Autobiography of a Yeti. Unlikely or not, the Yeti is apparently visiting with his biographer in London.

Her partner at the aforementioned agency, the supercilious Rupert Porter, has dubious views and suspicions regarding the book (he thinks it'a hoax) though he wouldn't mind having a huge literary hit.

Berthea Snark,
a psychoanalyst and mother of the most disliked politician in the city, the odious Oedipus Snark, ex-boyfriend of the above mentioned Barbara. Berthea is currently in the throes of writing an unauthorized biography of her unlikable son in which she plans to air all his dirty laundry. Need I mention - she can't stand her son.

Berthea is the sister of Terence Moongrove,
a mystically inclined, dangerously spacey (but likable) young man with more money than good sense. An eye must be kept on Terence who tends to believe that everyone is his friend and all wish him well.

Accountant Basil Wickramsinghe a slightly mysterious (but kindly) tenant who gives good cocktail parties.

Caroline Jarvis,
assistant to photographer Tim Something (yes that's his name) and student of art history, she lives in Corduroy Mansions with three other flat mates and has a benign sort of relationship with the artistically inclined and decidedly asexual James who is also studying art history and fond of the works of the painter Nicholas Poussin. James's problem is that he finds the idea of physical contact with anyone icky.

Corduroy Mansions is not a mystery series, not really (unless you count the mysteries of everyday life and human behavior), even if the title, THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD might make you think differently.

William French is approached by MI6 wanting to recruit his dog Freddy de la Hay for use in a scheme to snare some swarthy Russians dealing in big time corporate secrets, but that doesn't exactly turn the book into a mystery/mystery. To William it's just an out of the blue request by his country - or so he views it when he meekly hands Freddy over  (temporarily) in the interests of national security. William is a patriot after all.

But William will soon learn that being a spy is not all its cracked up to be when Freddy de la Hay goes missing.

These stories, as Onyx Reviews says in their review of the first book in the Corduroy Mansions series, are a 'collection of vignettes and the journeys are more important than the destinations. The pleasure of books like this is the time spent with these endearing characters, most of whom are well-meaning and kind. Some of the plots and sub-plots have complete arcs with satisfactory resolution, others simply meander on from Point A to Point G and ultimately peter out, exactly the way things do in real life.

Originally this book and the others I believe, were written as part of a newspaper serial. Read more about that here.

A CONSPIRACY OF FRIENDS is the third book in the series and here once again we meet up with old friends. And once again Freddy de la Hay has an escapade. This time it's in the country where he promptly disappears through a rabbit hole and into a terrifying adventure and a new life as a photographic model. (Don't worry, it all works out in the end.) In the meantime, believing that Freddy is lost forever, a despondent William French is disconcerted by an unexpected confession from an old friend.

And literary agent Barbara Ragg is disconcerted as well by a strange confession from her 'perfect' beau, Hugh. While Barbara's spacey brother Terence Moongrove becomes a racing car driver.

And of course, Marcia Light continues to wonder if she'll ever get a proposal from William.

In the meantime, the odious politician Oedipus Snark (odious being the operational word) has a run in with the Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle collider and comes out the other side a different man. Or does he? Inquiring minds want to know, most especially his long-suffering mother Berthea who is still hard at work on the unauthorized bio. Has Oedipus finally gotten his comeuppance? What happens next? Stay tuned for the next book in the series.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BERTIE (Book 4 in the 44 Scotland Street series) is my first literary visit to Edinburgh in the company of another quirky group of eccentric characters beginning with precocious six year old Bertie Pollock who laments the status of his life. Bertie is unlike most six year old boys in that he takes Italian conversazione lessons and saxophone lessons (he plays jazz), goes to yoga classes and regularly sees a psychiatrist whom Bertie thinks looks an awful lot like his new little brother Ulysses. (I told you Bertie was precocious.)

This full schedule of activities are forced on Bertie by his pushy, officious, over-protective, over-bearing mother despite weak protests from Bertie's father who has difficulty standing up to his wife's domineering ways. All Bertie wants to do is be a normal rough and tumble little boy. But the idea horrifies his mother. She picks his friends (a dreadful little girl named Olivia being one of them) and paints the walls of Bertie's room pink. Poor Bertie simply cannot catch a break.

Other characters living at 44 Scotland Street and surrounding area also have their own ups and downs and bouts of gentle desperation. Among them:

Lou Brown, a tall young woman who runs the local cafe and has a boyfriend named Robbie whose obsessive devotion to the Jacobites (who want to return the Stuarts to the throne of Scotland) borders on the manic. When will Big Lou find true love with a sane person?

illustration by Iain McIntosh

Then there's Angus Lordie, a painter or portraits and his perceptive (if occasionally a shade too canine-rowdy) dog Cyril, he of the golden tooth and propensity for winking.

And so on and so on. The characters here are just as quietly eccentric as in the Corduroy Mansions series, but perhaps not equally as likable - at least that's how I found them. Except for little Bertie of course whom we all wish well, honestly that mother of his is SO hard to take. Yet somehow poor Bertie remains remarkably sanguine considering his situation.

Despite (or maybe because of) their occasional bouts of odd behavior, all of Alexander McCall Smith's characters are as recognizable as our own neighbors and just as fallible. But in this particular series, I think, it's the city of Edinburgh that shines brightest. McCall Smith obviously loves Scotland (and the Scottish people) and here he tenderly cajoles the reader into sharing that affection. (I visited the city many years ago and I concur that is is a an oddly fabulous place (where all the babies seem to have red hair) full of warm and friendly if slightly quirky people.

I am quickly lining up the next in the series as fast as I can get them at my library.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday Salon: Mystery Titles That Make You Go Hmmm....!

Mother Finds a Body by Gypsy Rose Lee - source

Sally's in the Alley by Norbert Davis - source

Lady That's My Skull by Carl Shannon - source

Just Another Sucker by James Hadley Chase - source

Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Anthony Gilbert - source

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee - source 

Dumb As They Come by Mark Corrigan - source

Lady, the Guy is Dead by Edward Ronns - source

I don't think I've read any of these books but if I ran across them in some smelly (smelly in a good way) old book store, tucked away in the dusty back aisle where it's always so dark you can hardly believe the titles are real, then, yeah, I'd probably buy one or two just to see what's what. Maybe.

This is by way of being an interim post since again I'm not feeling well and I'm taking a few days off. Will return just as soon as I'm back to what passes for normal around these parts. See you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films and/or Television: POLITICAL ANIMALS starring Sigourney Weaver and Ciaran Hinds

This is a strange post I suppose, since I'm going to recommend (more or less) a show I don't actually like. But as usual (more or less) there's method to my madness.

Ciaran Hinds and Adrian Pasdar (ex-Prez and current Prez) 

I stumbled over the 2012 mini-series POLITICAL ANIMALS (a show created by Greg Berlanti and shown on the USA Network) on Netflix the other day. Didn't know what to expect since I'd never heard or read about it. But I'm a big fan of Irish actor Ciaran Hinds. (Can't do that accent mark over his first name.)

So, settle in here we go.

The Basic Storyline: 

Steely-eyed, steely back-boned Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) is an ex-First Lady (now divorced), ex-Presidential candidate and current Secretary of State to current President Paul Garcetti (the wonderful Adrian Pasdar whom some of you may remember from HEROES). She seems to be meant to be the power behind the throne even if she and Garcetti have a vaguely rocky relationship. He recognizes the power and hunger (for more power) in her as well as (curse it!) her extreme competence and she recognizes that it should be her and not he in the Oval Office.

What with one international crisis and another, Barrish is constantly maneuvering to step in and save the day. Naturally she is not beloved by any of the President's staff. She shows contempt for the Vice President. In fact, in some scenes she appears to ride roughshod over the President himself (I suppose that's to show that he's a basically mellow guy and she's not). Now I don't know about you, but I don't think that's how things are handled when you're in the same room with the most powerful man in the world. But I could be wrong. It does, however, have an odd MacBeth and his Lady vibe to it. Perhaps unintentionally.

The Cast: 

Let's get immediately to it: I hate to say this because I'm a fan, but Sigourney Weaver is the basic over-reaching weakness of the show. Not only is she not very likable or even sympathetic, but her character seems ill-conceived and worse, badly dressed.

Obviously she's a Hollywood version of Hillary Clinton and that's okay. But apparently Weaver isn't really in love with the part except, maybe, on the surface. (Blame the writers for not giving her much to work with I suppose.) Oh she can chew the scenery with the best of 'em, but it's all one-note acting 101 and nothing deeper.

Barrish is saddled, in the show, with two sons: one is the requisite gay character who is also the requisite addict in the family. The other works for her as an advisor. Neither of these actors are handed much to do and neither of them does what it is they're handed with any degree of charm or more than passable acting talent. In fact both are physically rather interchangeable and it's easy to mix them up. But enough about them.

There's also Carla Cugino as Susan Berg, a wanna-be-powerful reporter (with only one Pulitzer, for goodness' sake!) who (in the pilot for the show) has something on Barrish which she's holding in abeyance if Barrish would only let her [the reporter] follow her [the Secretary of State]around for a week and write up the behind the scenes stuff. Unfortunately the so-called secret Berg is holding onto is really not all that earth rattling although we're given to think that it is. Berg also has her own unsatisfactory private life to deal with and we're thrown briefly into that in some futile effort to round out her character or maybe earn our sympathy.

Then there's the marvelous Ellen Burstyn as Barrish's mother, a thankless part with nothing much to do other than drink cocktails and spout nasty-isms at her daughter's enemies. What a waste of a brilliant actress. (And yet she won an Emmy for the part. Go figure.)

Now you're probably saying to yourself at this point: Yvette it sounds like the show is a total dud.

But here's the rationale behind my post:

Ciaran Hinds. Ciaran Hinds. Ciaran Hinds.

I may be overly prejudiced in his favor, but Hinds as ex-President Bud Hammond is the real star of the show and should have been labeled as such. The man steals everything that isn't nailed down. Oh if only the show were set around him minus the excess baggage of that dreadful family. Here he plays what is obviously meant as a caricature of Bill Clinton (himself occasionally a caricature of himself) with such gusto, such joie de vivre, such over-the-top mannerisms that he might, just might be accused of over-acting. (Ah, what do they know!?) But in my view, he stops just short.

Hinds is absurdly, ridiculously wonderful. And you might ask well what has he done with his heretofore very pronounced British accent? Well, hold onto your hats ladies and gentlemen, Ciaran Hinds has somehow fashioned the most cunning Southern accent since, well, since Bill Clinton himself.

Remember the Ciaran Hinds of Jane Austen's PERSUASION? Remember him as Mr. Rochester in JANE EYRE? Remember him as Dumbledore's brother in the last Harry Potter film? Remember him as Julius Caesar on the BBC? Remember him in Susan Hill's THE WOMAN IN BLACK? He also stars, I think, in a British spy drama, ABOVE SUSPICION for the ITV network.

Remember all those calmly powerful British stiff-upper-lip performances - wonderful as they all are/were? Well, they all disappear, lost in a haze of incredulity, once you view Ciaran Hinds as the outrageously odious ex-President and Womanizer-in-Chief. ("Just call me Bud.")

He makes you cringe as he leers at his soon-to-be girlfriend's amazing cleavage. He is SO obvious and over the top. But all the while you're laughing and admiring his bravado, his chutzpah, his guts and gusto, his flagrant self-indulgence, his infamous gift for self-aggrandizement.  "I am the most beloved ex-President since Kennedy!"

 No, the show isn't meant to be a comedy, but Ciaran Hinds turns it all into black comedy. He is simply appalling, wonderfully so. (Though he can tone down, as when visiting his troubled son in the hospital.)

I dipped into the six episodes here and there, just to watch Hinds strut his stuff as the most atrocious philanderer since I don't know when. Yes, there were only six episodes thank goodness. But what there is of Ciaran Hinds is worth the price of admission to a show that without him would have been just another political soap opera, desperately dull, full of stock characters, badly written and cast (except for Hinds, Burstyn and Adrian Pasdar). Though in the end, even Hinds, as delightfully raunchy and unprincipled as his character is, can't save a bad show.

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten or overlooked films and/or television (or other audio/visuals) other bloggers are talking about today.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

And another book: LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

I'd heard the buzz about this book for months and thought, well, really, how good can it be? I mean, people were gasping for air, grasping for new superlatives. You know how that can turn a person off a book really quickly. I don't know exactly why but for me, it's this: I tend to get suspicious. I think we all would like to believe that we're not really part of the crowd. We're unique. Therefore our reading experiences must be unique. If everyone else loves a book then we're going to hold back. Sniff the air a bit.

Well, I'm done sniffing.

Kate Atkinson's LIFE AFTER LIFE is a masterpiece of inventive story-telling. Pure and not so simple.

I'm not saying it's a perfect book, no, there are things about it that rankle. But rankling makes you think and a book this well written, any book this - yes - this uniquely conceptualized and crafted (by an obviously gifted writer having the time of her life) doesn't come down the pike very often

The crowd is occasionally right - a humbling thought. 

A book that dazzles by its virtuosity and makes you think big thoughts (even if you're not a person given to big thoughts), a book that dazzles really in any way at all, is not to be sneered at.

I read  LIFE AFTER LIFE in two nights. Couldn't put it down. It's a bit over 500 pages, but it's do-able since some of the pages are only a few paragraphs.

It does take a bit of getting use to, this strange odyssey of Ursula Todd, a young woman with many lives to live. It is winter: 1910, when Ursula is born during the middle of a snowstorm and quickly dies, strangled by her mother's umbilical cord. Blackness descends. Then again she's born and lives - this time the doctor arrives in the nick of time. Her life reaches a certain point and she dies again. Then she is born once more and lives to go on to yet another life until she dies again - we go back and forth and back and forth. As I said it does take getting used to. It took me a few chapters but I eventually caught on. 

Each of Ursula's lives is peopled with friends and family whom we grow familiar with over time and whose different fates await alongside Ursula's - some of these fates are ugly, some are heart-breaking, all seem excruciatingly real. One of Ursula's own fates shows her up to be a relatively stupid young woman whom it is difficult to like or sympathize with. Another shows her to be quite heroic and exceptional. In yet another she is an abused wife. In another she is...

Ursula ('little bear' as her father Hugh - the most likable character in the book - calls her) is relatively unaware of this multiplicity of existence, though she is occasionally given to strange behavior and moments of deja vu. As when still a child, she  pushes the family maid Bridget down the stairs (breaking her arm) to save the girl from some dreadful fate which Ursula is only vaguely aware of.

She is sent by her mother, Sylvie (the most enigmatic character, I think, in the book) to a psychiatrist who specializes in difficult children. He is as odd and in a way, as fascinating a character as Ursula. Dr. Kellet believes that the child may be remembering other lives . 'Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present only the now.' Hardly the sort of thing that would make sense to a ten year old girl, and yet somehow it does.

What if we could go back and do this or that differently? Who hasn't thought that once or twice? Who hasn't wished for it? What if there were a way to alter reality? For that matter, which is the reality? Ursula Todd gets to go back, keeps getting to go back, but remains unaware except for a fleeting familiarity or the occasional sense of dread. It is only near the last third of the book that she becomes convinced that she's done all this before -  near the end when she attempts to save the world. 

In LIFE AFTER LIFE, Atkinson has written as good an account as I've ever read of the horror of the London blitz during WWII when Germany, beginning in 1940, bombed London consistently for fifty seven days and normality was completely overshadowed by the daily threat of imminent death and destruction. One of the accounts of the war is written from the point of view of an Ursula who has married a German lawyer, gotten German citizenship (?!!) and been forced to remain in Berlin during the war. 

Most of the characters in Ursula's immediate circle (or many circles) are well fleshed out, but it is her family and friends, the fates of the different members of that circle, that capture the imagination. Atkinson writes children very, very well, she fashions a comfortable English country childhood for Ursula and her brothers and sisters, an almost idyllic childhood punctuated by dark moments: the body of an unknown child is found discarded in a pig trough, Ursula drowns at the age of four while on holiday with her family at the seaside. A few pages later, a lifetime later, she is rescued by an artist painting nearby. 

This is not a novel you slip into surely and quickly, you may have the same confused feelings as I did for the first few pages, going back and forth, trying to figure out what was what. But this only lasts for a moment or two and thereafter comes the reward. You just have to trust that Atkinson knows what she's doing and knows where she's going.

It is true that in way, the author is playing tricks on us as Francine Prose says in her NY Times review of LIFE AFTER LIFE, she [Atkinson] is having fun with this novel, 'which is as much about writing as it is about anything else.' Yes, I agree. 

To read more of Francine Prose's 'take' on LIFE AFTER LIFE, please check out her excellent review (from April 2013) in the NY Times here