Monday, February 27, 2017

MovieMonday: Get Out



This smart movie sold more tickets than any other in its opening last weekend.

"Get Out" starts as a comedy of manners in the style of Tartuffe or Oscar Wilde.  A young woman takes her boyfriend home to meet her parents.  When he asks whether she has told them he is black, she explains that there will be no problem because, "They're not racists!"

In fact, she says, her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he'd had the opportunity.

When the pair arrive at the sumptuous suburban home, the parents don't miss a beat.  The father gives the boyfriend, Chris, a bro hug and calls him, "My man!"  

Later the dad shares that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he'd had the opportunity. He makes a point of showing Chris a photo of his relative who lost in a track heat to Jesse Owens.  Then the dad asks daughter and boyfriend how long "this thang" (their relationship) has been going on.

Over dinner, the girl's brother asks Chris, "What's your sport?" and then says, "With your frame and genetic makeup ... you'd be a fucking beast!"

At a reception the next day, an older woman introduces Chris to her husband, a former golfer.  The man doesn't play golf any longer, he says, "But I do love Tiger."

Ah, the discreet charm of the white upper class!  Its members' efforts to demonstrate that they are not bigoted expose just how race-obsessed they truly are.


And Then

Chris' friend Rod, who works in airport security ("I'm with the TS-fucking-A!"), has warned against the weekend trip.  "Don't go to a white-girl parent home!" he cautions.

Rod has a point.  Chris is a good sport about the awkwardness of his girlfriend's relatives and friends, but over time he cannot help but notice strange things.  

The family's two servants, both African American, seem possibly hostile toward Chris and then just weird.  A black guest at the family party seems disconnected as well.

And then the girlfriend's mother offers to hypnotize Chris to help him quit smoking.

Over time, the oddities turn the movie into a horror show. (Comedy-horror is an American genre that dates to the 1920s and whose most recent entrant before "Get Out" was the chick version of "Ghostbusters.")

In "Get Out," white hostility devolves into the worst-case scenario.   Because it's a comedy, you don't have to get too wigged out by the horror aspect, which doesn't mean it isn't pretty darn creepy.  And you can laugh at the end.

The movie is the first for Jordan Peele, he of the Key and Peele comedy team that built a following over four years on Comedy Central.  As with the K&P skits, the humor here is offered with a light touch and without direct malice, and the movie is nicely paced. May this be the first of many.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Rage


If you enjoy the occasional police procedural, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of "The Rage," a well-written and deftly plotted story set in Dublin in 2010.  

The book's chapters alternate between the experiences of its two main characters.  One is Bob Tidey, a middle-aged Garda (police) detective whose life and career aren't as he expected them to be.  The other is Vincent Naylor, a young thug fresh out of jail with a short temper and an itch to pull off a big heist.

The book opens with a two-page prologue.  Tidey is puzzling about a fraught situation that he cannot resolve.  "The way things had gone, there was no good way out of this, no moral thing to do. . . . But something had to be done."

Well, what's this about, you think to yourself.  So you turn to the first chapter, and the clock is wound back to describe how Tidey's conundrum arose.  

In the early pages, the detective is tasked with figuring out who shot and killed an unscrupulous banker, a case that his supervisors want cleared because the dead man was prominent in the city.*  

Meanwhile Naylor and his pals find a security man with a drinking problem and detailed knowledge about the cash collection practices of a large company.  They blackmail him and use what they learn to devise an intricate plot.

Other elements and characters are sketched into both men's stories -- Garda officers, family concerns, an aging nun who sees something and says something, a reformed hood whose son is up to no good, and a bordering-on-stereotypical annoying reporter.  (Reporters are helpful in crime stories because they talk to various involved parties and share information via their publications.)  All play their roles in moving the action along. 

Author Gene Kerrigan is himself a longtime Dublin newspaperman, and his story's settings provide some interest for people who have visited the city or been accompanied/dragged through James Joyce's "Ulysses" in a college class.  

"The Rage" is Kerrigan's fourth book. It won the Golden Dagger prize for the U.K.'s best crime story of 2012.  

Note

* Evil bankers are stock characters in fiction and film, particularly since the Great Recession. They are particularly resonant in this book, whose full title, "The Rage (World Noir)," reflects the mood in Dublin in 2010.   

Here's a quarterly GDP chart for Ireland in the relevant period.  The low point is the fourth quarter of 2009.  



Ireland's history since the mid 19th century was bleak.  A famine that began in the mid 1840s starved at least a million Irish and led to the emigration of millions of others.  I read once that the sons of famine survivors who came to New York grew six inches taller than their fathers.

The Irish economy remained sluggish for almost 150 years, a period when generation after generation of young Irish adults left the country in search of better prospects. Fortunately for them, they were able to settle in other Commonwealth countries. 

Around 1995, things began looking up.  International businesses located in Ireland, which spurred domestic business development and rising real estate values.  GDP grew rapidly, and the young people stayed home. For a while, Ireland was called the Celtic Tiger.

Then came the crash, which must have awakened national memories and dread.  It is not surprising that a journalist like Kerrigan would weave this into a novel of that moment.  

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie Monday: The Red Turtle



What to call this movie?  A fable, a circle-of-life story, a hallucination, a dream?  

Whatever you call it, it's a nice bit of filmmaking.

As it opens, a man struggles in a stormy sea after his boat has capsized and then broken apart.  He awakens later on a beach and finds himself alone on a tropical island.

The island is beautiful, but the man naturally wishes to return to the home he left.  He builds several rafts with leafy sails, but each one is rammed and breaks up shortly after launch.  When a beautiful young woman arrives to join him on the island, the man decides to stay.

What follows is their Edenic life together and the arrival of their son.  In his own way, the boy repeats his father's experiences.  He encounters groups of scrabbling crabs, survives a steep fall into a watery chasm and dreams of vivid unrealities.  

The only sounds in the film are those of animals, sea waves and human grunts of frustration or search.  There is no manufactured conflict, only the efforts to survive in a mostly benign setting.  The turtle of the title sets the whole story in motion in a magical way.

If this sounds like a simple story, it is.  The movie almost certainly was made with children in mind, but it is deeply stirring on a human level and rewarding for adult viewers as well.

Our animation studios (Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks) turn out great stuff, but they rarely adopt a less-is-more approach.  American children's lives are enriched by the antics of Bugs Bunny and Buzz Lightyear, but also by myths and fairy tales.  This film falls in the latter category.


"The Red Turtle" was made in France in collaboration with Studio Ghibli, the renowned Japanese anime house.  You should see it if it is showing near your town, but don't get your hopes up:  The movie was available on only 36 screens nationwide last weekend.  

The Ghibli vault includes many fine films, but to my knowledge they are not offered by domestic screening services.  Your best chance to watch "The Red Turtle" probably will be after it is released on Blu-ray. 








Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Sneakers




On my way to the library last week, I walked past a local sneaker store.  Outside I saw a briskly moving half-block line of young people.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"We're entering the drawing," a tall Asian kid told me.

This interested me.  I am pretty lucky when it comes to drawings.  When I was nine years old, for instance, I won a home-baked cake in the cake walk at my elementary school's annual carnival.  More recently, in the years since I turned 18, my number has come up at least 25 times in drawings for jury duty.

So when I got to the front of the line, I found a couple of shoe store employees enrolling people in the drawing.

"What are you giving away?" I asked the store manager.  I was thinking maybe I could score a new Prius or tickets to the next Lady Gaga performance.  

I was wrong.

"We're raffling chances to buy the new Kanye West sneaker," I was told.  "The drawing is Friday, and the sneakers go on sale Saturday."

The sneaker, pictured above, is the latest iteration of the Yeezy Boost, this one in black and red, from Adidas.  The price point is $220 for an adult pair and a more economical $140 for children's sizes.   


As I headed home an hour later, I saw another half-block line of young people waiting to enter the drawing to purchase the new Yeezies or Yeezys.  Whatever.


I briefly considered getting on line because I knew my odds were good.  But then I decided against it.  I have nothing against Kanye West, but I already own several pairs of perfectly good sneakers.  For me, sneakers are not a fashion statement.

In this I may be alone.


Name Brand Sneakers

This is an old, old trend.  Nike kicked it up a notch in 1985 when it released its first Air Jordan basketball shoes, named for Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan.  Over the years, the line ran to 30 models, many of which are now collectors' items. 

I read a couple years ago that Odell Beckham, the wide receiver for the New York Giants, had a collection of 200 pairs of sneakers, including a couple Nike Air Yeezy 2 “Red Octobers” that were valued at $5,000. 




I guess you would call these "investment sneakers."  It's an interesting idea, but not for me.  I don't have the closet space or the fashion sense to invest in clothes that I'm not going to wear.  

In fact, premium sneakers always have been expensive.  The first Air Jordans were priced at $65, which was a lot of money 32 years ago.  A pair of the current prominent basketball shoes, Nike LeBrons, will set you back $290.

Except for people making sneaker investments, these high-priced shoes are, and always have been, an effective wealth transfer from relatively less well-heeled young people to rich athletes and Kanye West, who is many things but not an athlete.  To be fair, the buyers are not being coerced, and some are willing to stand in long lines just to get a chance to buy the shoes.  People have priorities.

Two years ago, Kanye West moved his Yeezy line from Nike to Adidas -- apparently his $4 million annual deal didn't include royalties, and West wanted more.  Adidas was willing to pay more, and it has positioned its Yeezy models as anchors in its effort to establish itself as a premium athletic fashion brand. 


A Fashion Tip

One of my stylish high school friends used to wear true retro sneakers, low-top Chuck Taylors, which originally were released in 1917.  She just liked the way they looked.



The last time I saw her, several years ago and many shoes later, she told me she still favored Chucks for casual ensembles.

She looked great.  

There is something to be said for consistency and not haring off after every shiny new thing.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

MovieMonday: Toni Erdmann



This German film clocks in at 2 hours and 42 minutes and is a top contender for the best foreign language Oscar this year.

My experience watching this film was not ideal.  A woman sitting next to me had sneaked her lunch into the theater and ate it there.  It was a smelly sandwich.  After about 10 minutes, I had had enough.  I got up and moved to one of the few open seats, in the front row on the far side of the theater.  It's not fun watching a movie with subtitles when you are leaning back and sideways to view a screen set just about on top of you.  

I did not especially enjoy the movie, for whatever reason, but I may be alone.  Critics love-love-love "Toni Erdmann."  One wrote this:

"I cried laughing, laughed crying, and plunged through every other emotional paradox that glugs beneath the surface of family life."

So here's the story:  Winfried, a divorced German music teacher who is lonely after the death of his dog, travels to Bucharest to see his daughter, Ines, a management consultant. Ines is busy repping a plan to fire a Romanian company's workers and outsource their jobs in the interest of higher profits -- a project that could gain her a promotion to partner.

Ines has a life filled with meetings and after-work engagements where she sucks up to clients.  She is surprised when her father shows up at her office.  He thinks she looks unhappy. They talk a little about this and the meaning of life.  After a short stay, he pretends to say goodby but then reappears in a bad wig and with the fake name that is the movie's title.

The father is a practical joker of long standing.  One of his schticks is popping an ugly set of yellowing front teeth in and out of his mouth all day long.  He is also a low-energy type; the leisurely pace of his conversations and antics may be the norm for Germany, but it would never work here.  (An American version of this film is planned, starring Jack Nicholson.  We'll see whether he plods through the title role.) 

The turning point of the movie, I think, comes when Toni plays a keyboard as Ines sings "The Greatest Love of All," that terrible Iove-yourself-most-of-all number that made Whitney Houston famous and symbolized much of what was wrong with the 1980s.  

Maybe that was supposed to be funny, but nobody in my theater laughed.  In fact, all the major critics -- and I do mean all of them -- wrote that "Toni Erdmann" was nonstop belly-laugh hilarity, but there was not a single chuckle during my screening. 

Maybe it was the smelly sandwich.


Note

Another notable movie open last weekend was the second Fifty Shades picture, a romance between a nice young woman and a handsome billionaire whose only problem is that he is a sexual sadist, big on whips and handcuffs.  What's a girl to do?

If you are dithering about which of these two movies to see, I will mention that "Toni Erdmann" also has sexual content -- a naked party and a sex scene in which the woman  instructs her partner to masturbate on a plate of petit fours.  It's not sadistic or funny, but it is unusual.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Vagrants



Here is a rare book, one that I recommend wholeheartedly.  The writing is excellent, the characters are vivid and the story is moving.

The author, Yiyun Li, was raised in China and came to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree in science.  She stayed to study writing, and she adopted English as her language. This, her first novel, was released in 2011 to broad acclaim.  

The Story

"The Vagrants" opens on a day in the late 1970s when a young Chinese counter-revolutionary is to be executed for her failure to reform herself after 10 years in prison for doubting the precepts of the Cultural Revolution.

Interestingly, the young woman is not a character in the story; her fate is sealed before the book opens.  We first meet her parents and then various other residents of Muddy River, the fictional town where she was raised and will die.  

The writer has set up this dramatic situation and populated her story with other well-drawn characters.  What flows is how they react to the execution and how their reactions affect the rest of their lives.

Among the characters are a physically disabled girl whose parents treat her as a nuisance and a servant; an odd young man whose parents are gone and whose only relative, his grandmother, has died; a successful newscaster who has gratified her mother by marrying into a politically prominent family; and an aging couple who have spent their lives as wandering beggars.

As might be expected, an execution ordered for incorrect thoughts is a reflection of a totalitarian culture.  The condemned prisoner had been an ardent Maoist until, at 18, she began to question her beliefs.  Her boyfriend at the time reported her change of heart to government authorities, and for this he was rewarded with the opportunity to enlist in the People's Army.

Throughout the book we see great cruelty among people, even among family members, that we come to recognize as the personal cost of life in a regime that rewards obedience more than any human quality.  For the people in the story, the costs are profound.

In addition to a clear and skillful written style, the book is distinguished by the author's respect for the integrity of her characters.  While most fiction writers cut their characters to serve their plots, Li seems to work the other way around.  In this book, she lets her characters respond as they will to what is happening around them.  It enhances the effect for the reader.


Note

It is likely not a coincidence that this book was finished and copyrighted in 2009, 20 years after the Chinese government's violent suppression of popular demonstrations in support of democratic reforms. 

Since that time, the government has stifled discussion of the events in books or schools. The post below is from Human Rights Watch, an interview with an American journalist who covered the situation at Tianenman Square in Beijing.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

MovieMonday: American Violence



Before I render an opinion here, let me share my bona fides.

Last year I watched several superhero movies.  These movies' plots are designed to set up battle events involving various weapons and lots of computer-generated imagery.  Nobody goes to superhero movies because of the plots, which is good because the plots stink.

The plot of "American Violence" is worse than the plot of a superhero movie, and it doesn't have fun CGI to distract the viewer from that fact. 

In short, "American Violence" is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.  

The story, and its generic-sounding title, imply that the movie is violent, and in this it delivers. There are scenes of torture, stabbings, shootouts and prison rape, as well as implied scenes of child molestation.  

These moments are surprisingly unmoving, given the ludicrous nature of the script, which pretends to be a thoughtful examination of the morality of the death penalty, but whose elements are so contrived that they cannot be taken seriously.

The setup is that Denise Richards, here playing a criminal psychologist, is asked to advise the governor of Texas on whether he should cancel the scheduled execution of a convicted murderer.  The governor is facing political resistance to capital punishment.  

This is amusing for at least two reasons:

-- There is no keen opposition to capital punishment in Texas.  The state has executed 93 murderers since 2010, two since January 1 of this year.  The number of killings ascribed to the inmate in the movie, if they resulted in prosecutions and guilty verdicts, would make him ineligible for a sentence review.   

-- Denise Richards is unconvincing as a professor of psychology.  Her hair, light brown with lovely blonde highlights, is long and falls in ringlets that must take a hairdresser hours to arrange each day.  She has perfectly arched eyebrows, a suspiciously full mouth and, always, great lighting. It may be that the film's makeup crew chose to present her as a movie star, but her acting skills are not sufficient to convince an audience that she is anything more.  

The death-row inmate, played by Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau, is interviewed by the psychologist, who discovers that he is very intelligent and highly self-controlled.   The justification for his crimes is that he has been double-crossed repeatedly by unindicted criminals who face no legal consequences for their corruption -- doctors, lawyers and a prison warden played by Bruce Dern, seemingly a total whack job but actually quite devious and evil.  

The plot pulls so many rabbits out of hats that it is difficult to watch the movie without laughing.  Its unrealistic constructs pile up, one on another, and completely invalidate the faux-serious death-penalty commentary that is supposed to end the film. 

It's a total mess.  Don't say you weren't warned.


Note

One bit player is Rob Gronkowski, who acquits himself well in a few on-camera minutes as a straight-faced, pistol-shooting guard. In real life, he is a tight end for the New England Patriots who was forced by injury to sit out last night's Super Bowl.
         Gronk has a winsome personality that has earned him a loyal base of fans who would support him if he decides to take up acting as his second career.  If he wants to succeed at this, however, he will need to hire a discerning agent who will not send along scripts like the one for "American Violence." 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Are We Running Out of Bacon?






Early this week came the unsettling news that America is experiencing a bacon shortage.

"There are literally not enough little piggies going to market," said an alarming and widely circulated report.

As evidence, the article said, "In December 2016, frozen pork belly inventory totaled 17.8 million pounds, the lowest level since 1957, according to the U.S.Department of Agriculture."  (Bacon is made of pork bellies that have been sliced and smoked or cured.)

This raised a stir nationwide because bacon is one of the most popular American foods.  It can be eaten alone or used in recipes to punch up the flavor of more mundane casseroles and salads.  Bacon or bacon flavoring also has been featured in products ranging from ice cream to lollipops to toothpaste to artisanal chocolate.


Really?

Personally, I questioned the whole bacon-shortage thesis.

I had read an article in October 2016 that asserted there was an overall pork surplus.  From that piece:

         Hog futures were the worst investment in commodities last quarter and in 
         the past year.  That's because there are simply too many pigs.

         "We could have not just a record but an obscene record supply" (of pork), said 
         a financial analyst in Illinois. (Illinois is the country's second-larges pork-
         producing state after Iowa.) 

One reason given for the problem was softening demand in China, a country whose cuisine relies heavily on pork.  The Chinese economy has had a case of either the sniffles or a full-blown flu for a while now, depending on whose numbers you use.

In addition, the fourth quarter is traditionally the time of year when most porks are slaughtered.  It could have been expected in October that pork inventories, including pork belly inventories, would be rising rapidly.

Taken together, these facts made me suspect that the country does not face a pork shortage generally or a bacon shortage in particular. 

And I wasn't the only skeptic.  A late-week report in the august New York Times called the pork shortage story "fake news."  From the article:

         “To imply that there’s going to be some shortage of bacon is wrong,” said 
         Steve Meyer, the vice president of pork analysis for EMI Analytics, in an
         interview as the bacon reports spread. “There’s plenty of hogs coming. There’s 
         going to be plenty of bacon.”

(Vice president of pork analysis -- what a job title!  But I digress.)


Pork Bellies

Between the years of 1961 and 2011, pork belly futures were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  The price fluctuations in futures provided signals to farmers about the profitability of investing in hogs at given times. This would tend to smooth supply.

I do not know why the CME dropped pork bellies from its trading roster.  (Confession here: I am not a commodities expert.  For many years I thought the term "pork bellies" meant hog futures; the two are different.)

But I do have a thought about why there may be more demand for pork bellies.  It has nothing to do with bacon.  It has to do with Nashville.


Pork Belly

I spent much of last year in Nashville, a booming city of great charm and with an unusual restaurant culture.  Just as the city has attracted ambitious musicians, it has become a proving ground for innovative young chefs.

Nashville restaurants deserve a broader discussion, a subject for a later post, but one remarkable thing in the Nashville restaurant world of 2016 was the full embrace of "pork belly" as a menu item.

I'm not talking bacon here, just plain old pork belly, which looks like this before it is cooked.
  


Every Nashville restaurant seemed to have at least one menu item that involved pork belly last year.  Here's an example from a Southern-Japanese fusion spot:

             Southern Ramen -- triple stock, collard greens, tabasco bean sprouts, 
                                            soft egg, pork belly

When I got back to the Northeast after the holiday season, I shared pork belly anecdotes with stylish friends who dine at trendy Manhattan eateries.  They said that they, too, had begun to notice pork belly on restaurant menus.

More ominously, the 4,300-unit Arby's restaurant chain introduced a new product last October, the Smokehouse Pork Belly Sandwich.

Pictured below, the sandwich is described this way:  "thick slices of pork belly, crispy onion strings, mayo, smoked cheddar cheese and Smoky Q sauce on a toasted star-cut bun."



Around my house, this is what is known as a gut bomb.  Fast-food restaurants depend on high-fat, hand-held entrees like these to maintain their profit margins. 

If this sandwich catches on (and I don't see why it would not,) it will be copied.  

If it is copied, demand for pork belly will rise and will compete with already-high demand for bacon.  

If that happens, then the country may have a genuine bacon shortage.  



Notes

The most durable food trend of recent years has been the rising popularity of bacon. A Beard Award-winning writer, David Sax, discussed the phenomenon in an informative and entertaining Bloomberg article.

-----

Bacon innovators come in packages large and small, I learned last month when I was shown family photos of a birthday meal that a young relative had designed for himself.  It was a raspberry-bacon sandwich.  

The meal was a resounding success, and I believe he would recommend the recipe without hesitation to others with similar tastes.