Dog Day Afternoon

Dir: Sidney Lumet
Dog Day Afternoon was one of two DVDs I bought
for Abel’s Christmas present (people always buy him food, not knowing what else to get him; Mom suggested DVDs), but being a used copy, we watched it before wrapping it up. Sidney Lumet’s job was to take a sensationalist story (two incompetents try to rob a bank, one of whom wants the money for his lover’s sex-change operation) and turn it inside out, making the outlandish universal. With Pacino, he succeeds, and then goes further into doom and despair. Sonny and Sal’s attempts are funny at first, but as the day wears on and the AC and lights go out in the building, death seems right outside the door, cheered on by the bread’n’circuses New York mob.
The film now is a documentary glimpse into a New York that opened up to us only in the 70s, before being reformed and reshaped in the 80s. DDA’s opening five minutes show life in the city, c. 1976 (set in 1972, nobody worries that 1976’s film “A Star Is Born” hangs on a marquee). It was a move borrowed from the New Wave, and rarely seen these days, but sets up the wider context for a film that mostly takes place in two locations: inside and outside the bank. And look closely, for wandering among the crowd is Sonny’s wife, who we won’t see till much later–fiction intermingling with fact.
Pacino’s performance is tempered here with equal doses of anger and passivity–and it’s his star power that allows us entrance into the more disturbed or delusional aspects of Sonny’s personality.
The film pulses along between slow pools of calm and thrashes of activity (the series of lightning fast cuts that follow Sonny’s gunshot out the back window shows that you can cut quick and still be comprehensible). The script has time for dialog that exists apart from furthering the plot. And the supporting cast stand out as real people, not central casting drones (in particular the frizzy haired teller who is always doing something idiosyncratic when the camera passes over her.
Lastly, we come to identify with Sonny so much that in the end we feel his sadness when the hostages–supporting characters in Sonny’s head movie–refuse to acknowledge us or him once he is arrested. He’s lost his chance, his friends, his family–and mostly he’s lost center stage.

The Italian Job

Dir: F. Gary Gray
The Italian Job remakes the Michael Caine vehicle and though it keeps the MiniMetro,
much to Austin’s delight, it ditches Italy after the opening Bond-like sequence for less interesting Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Throw into the mix some psychobabble thread about father issues (Donald Sutherland as masterthief–it’s his death that must be revenged for the rest of the film) and some attempts at light humor (mostly Seth Green), and each sort of outweighs the other. Edward Norton hangs around for a paycheck, which he admitted as much in an article around the time of the film’s release. His lack of joy at being on set certainly helps his dour character, and Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron have as much chemistry as an underfunded inner city science class.
Still, it proceeds at a quick pace and director F. Gary Gray knows how to shoot action for the most part. Don’t expect any of it to make sense, though.

Happy Winter Solstice and/or Yule!

So the wacky-doo Christian Right wants to stop the secularization of Christmas? They stole it from the pagans! And today is the real deal–the shortest day of the year, the official beginning of winter, which is all based on actual events (the earth turning on an angle away from the sun) not some arbitrary date made up centuries ago and which isn’t even in the Bible. Fortunately, you can keep most of your Christmas goodies and still celebrate the Solstice/Yule–these include wreaths on the door, a decorated tree, candles, even dressing up like Santa Claus (or Old Man Winter).
If you really want to get serious, here are instructions for a Roman Saturnalia, though getting a CEO to sit down with the peasant underclass may be difficult.
You may also want to make some cider for Wassailing about, perform a mummer play, or kiss under the mistletoe.
Meanwhile, the Christians did invent the folk art of Nativity Scenes (Alaskan, Lego, action figure, and dioramic) so we’ll give ’em that.

Kwaidan – Lafcadio Hearn

1904 (this edition 1968)

Strange that it took an American emigre to immortalize Japanese folk tales,
writing at a time when the oral traditions he was capturing were dying out. Strange also that his Kwaidan (“odd tales”) is so short, when Japan is brimming with ghost stories and monsters. Of course, there are other books in Japanese by Japanese authors of folk tales, but this is the classic, and Hearn became an honorary Japanese. Kobayashi’s film of the same name tells five of these stories, but readers will spot that only three come from the “Kwaidan” volume, the rest from his other books. Hearn’s insect studies are also included here–his essay on ants is particularly good, as he compares human society to the ant colony, and the colony wins. He also tries to get his mind around how humans would adapt to living with a hive/soldier ant mentality of pure selflessness, and doesn’t succeed.
My friend Gerald gave this to me in 2003 on my birthday, along with The Glass Key by Hammett. I finally got around to it. In fact, I think I read it in Japan, but my memory is foggy–I surely don’t remember the ants article.

Don’t Let Them Be Misunderstood

A good defense/appreciation of the Beatles American albums. Either way, it’s good to have these stereo versions out compared to the “mastered on wax paper” 1987 CDs that have still yet to be remastered. New Beatles Capitol box set misunderstood by critics:
It should be noted that in the early sixties, teen albums rarely sold in excess of a few hundred thousand copies. Capitol?s success with its reconfigured Beatles albums containing hit singles changed that. Record companies soon realized that well-crafted rock albums could be big sellers. A few years later, thanks to the Beatles and Capitol, the album replaced the single as the dominant pop and rock music format.


Amazon’s Quiet Revolution

While Google announces new acquisitions almost daily (the universal library is fairly mindblowing), Amazon makes little improvements which you only notice later. For example, I just added Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear to my “Now Reading” sidebar, and went to grab the URL. You can now read the first sentence of the book, and get a list of the books Davis cites in his book (all hotlinked) and a list of books that cite Davis’ book (also holinked). It’s a minor improvement on the site, yet quite cool.