Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
by Alex Ross
Recommended Ages: 15+

All right, I've had this book at least since Borders Bookstore was still a thing (as evidenced by the price sticker I peeled off the back cover a few nights ago), and I remember people telling me I had to read it when I was singing pieces like John Adams' El Niño, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus (and that was a few seasons ago), and the bookmark I stuck in it was actually a ticket stub from a performance of Messaien's Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at UMSL sometime when the year had two oughts in it, so it's fair to say I'm a little late getting around to reading this book. I reckon it doesn't need my review, since it won a National Book Critics Circle Award and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. But still, it was very worth my while to read it. In fact, I think it's going to be one of those books that I keep for good, loaning it out with great care to only the most deserving people.

In this book, Alex Ross brilliantly organizes the swarm of musical styles and schools of the turbulent 20th century into a coherent narrative. He emphasizes the careers of several leading figures in each school, telling what happened to music under Stalin and Hitler, music of the avante-garde, modern "classical" or "art" music in America, the minimalists, the serialists, and many more. He richly describes key musical examples and relates them to the most deeply held beliefs, fears, and passions of their creators. He somehow traces all the streams of musical thought into a handful of main channels, often relating widely differing musical events to Richard Strauss's Salome, Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Alban Berg's Wozzeck, and Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus. It's a huge, hefty tome - even the paperback weighed heavily in my hands - but once picked up, hard to put down.

I plan to keep using this book, at least, as a bibliography of more in-depth studies of specific slices of the 20th-century-music pie. It also comes with a list of recommended recordings to delve into the highlights, many of which I already love, and some of which I may be better equipped to appreciate after reading this book. It is now clearer to me than ever how (and why) some composers and critics of the 20th century were so dead-set on music that would not, and could not, appeal to the public - though some of them were shocked to find a public that loved their works - and why other composers, whose music had instant popular appeal but was despised by highbrow types, really deserves respect and admiration as great contributions to the 20th century's broad, deep, rich reservoir of cultural treasures.

Ross lays down the challenge for art music in the 21st century: to find the always elusive musical ground between curating, as in a museum, the artifacts of a dead tradition and letting it slide into oblivion, between creating new art works that have no audience and popular entertainments that have no artistic value. Sixteen years into the 21st century, I think the signs are encouraging. What I absorbed from this book goes a good way toward anticipating where that musical ground may lie. But dear Lord, please let it not be another century like the last one!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

198. David Hymn

The subtitle of this brand-new hymn is "For the Gift of Repentance." Again, it's an odd variant on the sub-genre of "heroes of the faith" hymns in that, apart from allusions to a couple other episodes, it ignores most of the biblical stories about David and focuses almost solely on one. Besides, the story I chose to focus on is the one some people find most disturbing: a hero of faith cut down to size by his own sin. But this is precisely where I find David to be a "useful" example, worthy of being remembered in Christian hymnody - apart from paraphrases of his psalms, that is. Maybe some other time there will be a "David Hymn II" that addresses such interesting concepts as being chosen by grace, etc. The original tune, titled DAVID, I wrote in a big rush right in the middle of composing Stanza 2 of the text. I think it was partly inspired by the tune Robert Potterton wrote for my "Seven Churches of the Apocalypse" hymn, which I had just harmonized a few days earlier. I admit it's another instance of "casting against type," sort of like that minor-key tune I wrote for Jubilate Sunday, but I'm OK with that.
For Your word’s sake, according to Your heart,
Lord God, you raised up David as a king;
Your gracious covenant set him apart,
Through His offspring to do a mighty thing.
Therefore, because Your promises are true,
Help us through David’s Son to come to You!

That warrior, that prophetic psalmist-king,
That favored man, that champion of grace—
The same, stung by temptation’s deadly sting,
Bowed to his lust, turned from Your holy face;
If such a man gave way to flesh and blood,
What hope have we, who are not half so good?

He who slew giants with a single stone
Did murder, his adultery to hide;
Can one so lost for such a crime atone?
Could he restore the wife, raise him who died?
Far better had the youthful David’s sling
Felled him who slung it, ere he did this thing!

Yet, Lord, abiding by Your faithful plan,
You sent the prophet Nathan to the king,
To fling the piercing word, “You are the man.”
So now to us, Your law’s indictment bring!
Send messengers with timely, stern reproof,
Lest we from Your forgiveness stand aloof!

As David his iniquity confessed
And turned to seek Your conscience-cleansing grace,
Now let us, by Your Holy Spirit blessed,
Again like David, bow before Your face:
In us the gift of penitence instill;
Our empty hands with your forgiveness fill!

And though our sins’ effects may plague us here,
As David bore the death of his dear son,
Lift up our hearts with humble, patient cheer
Through David’s later Seed, the Holy One,
Till, flashing through our night so long and grim,
He will both come to us, and we to Him!
I never, never, never have writers' block... yet I stared for WEEKS at the space on the page where this hymn was meant to go, knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and couldn't make a start. The trouble was, I had picked an existing tune for the yet-unwritten hymn (Lindeman's lovely GUD SKAL ALTING MAGE) and it just wasn't the right tune. As soon as I deleted it, the words started to flow. Then, about halfway through Stanza 2, I started hearing music...

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Greyfriar

The Greyfriar
by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith
Recommended Ages: 14+

Princess Adele is the heir to the throne of the Equatorian Empire: the Alexandria, Egypt-based successor to the British Empire, in a near-future alternate-history world in which vampires - bloodsucking monsters who can endure anything except heat, decapitation, or catastrophic vital-organ damage - interrupted a steampunk Victorian era some 150 years ago with a great slaughter and now control most of the northern hemisphere above the tropics. Now, as advances in technology tip the balance back in favor of the human race, Adele's hand is promised to an American warlord and renowned vampire slayer. The marriage is meant to join the two empires in a coalition that will ensure mankind's victory in a planned war to take the world back - and also to save Equatoria from the feminine weakness of its empress-to-be. But when a vampire attack on a goodwill mission strands Adele behind enemy lines before her wedding day, Adele's surprising strength is one of the few threats the decadent vampire court of Great Britain isn't prepared for - that, and the intervention of a mysterious, masked, all-but-mythical resistance fighter named the Greyfriar.

It is tricky to try to say more about what happens in this book without spoiling surprises that weigh greatly among the pleasures of reading it. So perhaps I should give up now and list some of those pleasures. First, this book's fantasy world is a unique outlier of the burgeoning steampunk genre - a possible future built on an alternate past, in which steam power has been superceded by more efficient chemical-engineering applications, such as rocket-propelled airships, Fahrenheit blades that radiate vampire-destroying heat, and bombs that emit disabling sound waves. Second, it has an unusual take on vampires, who can cultivate great intelligence and nobility, but whose lack of creativity, sense of touch, and manual dexterity limits their capacity to create and use technology. Brushing aside ignorant superstitions about them being reanimated corpses, they are basically a parasitic life-form that runs the gamut from dangerous, feral beasts to a kind of feudal monarchy. Unfortunately, the most powerful vampire clan in Europe is led by a doddering king who has fallen under the influence of his younger son, a thorough-going monster.

Third, there is a really interesting, emotionally convincing love-triangle in this story that promises to cause exquisite pain for the romantic hero and heroine for books to come. Fourth, there are hints that in future books, Adele will be inducted into magical and religious arts that have been repressed by her empire's strictly secular society, but that will make her an unusually powerful vampire-fighter - if she isn't one already. Fifth, there are a lot of well-drawn characters in this book, including several figures of political satire, such as the hawkish American senator and the protocol-obsessed Equatorian prime minister. Sixth, the villainous vampire characters have motives you can understand and believe, and even on some level sympathize with, while remaining thoroughly and (excuse me) blood-chillingly nasty. Seventh, the fight scenes are pretty intense.

This is Book 1 of a series titled Vampire Empire, by a husband-wife writing team who also co-wrote the novel Banshee Screams, a serialized entertainment called It Came from Beneath the Sea...Again, and the "Crown & Key" trilogy of paranormal thrillers set in an alternate Victorian era. To-date there are three more Vampire Empire books, titled The Rift Walker, The Kingmakers, and The Geomancer. Clay Griffith's titles also include TV, film, and comic-book novelizations, particularly connected with the satirical superhero The Tick. It may take me a while to get to the remaining books in this series - the one I just read having been on my bookcase for several years before I opened it - but I look forward to finding out what comes next for the princess, her engagement to the unappealing senator, and her seemingly tragic, fate-defying love affair with the Greyfriar.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Demons of the Ocean

Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean
by Justin Somper
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Tempest twins, Grace and Connor, live some 500 years in our future, a time (I gather) when sea levels have risen, and most of the world is covered by water. Orphaned at age 14 by a lighthouse keeper who was able to leave them little more than the memory of a sea chanty he used to send them to sleep - a morbid little ditty about pirates who are also vampires - they run away to sea and are soon separated by storm and shipwreck.

Athletic Connor gets rescued by a band of vanilla, non-vampire pirates led by the rascally Molucco Wrathe, who lives by the old-fashioned pirate creed of "a short life, but a jolly one." Connor soon proves himself a prodigy of piracy, with an instinctive grasp of swordplay and the qualities of resourcefulness and team-work that suggest a great future in the pirate business. His only reservations are a qualm about stealing and dealing death and mayhem, a certain uneasiness about Wrathe's snake familiar Scrimshaw, and the desperate hope, growing into a nagging certainty, that Grace is still out there, surviving somehow on the very Vampirate ship about which their father sang to them.

Tough and intelligent Grace, meanwhile, has indeed been pulled out of the drink, in her case by an undead dreamboat named Lorcan Furey. He vows to protect her from the shipload of bloodsucking fiends on which he has taken refuge after 600 years of wandering the earth. Actually the Vampirates aren't such a bad lot. Their captain is an eerie figure who wears a mask, doesn't drink blood, and seems to see everything. In spite of his mysterious powers, however, the Vampirate skipper cannot prevent one Lieutenant Sidorio, who was as much a monster before he turned, from trying to sate his insatiable thirst on her.

While the twins wonder whether they will ever be together again, the very thing that brings them together may also be the spark that lights a world-changing conflict. It's only suggested in this book - the Vampirate captain whispering in Grace's mind, "So it ends. So it begins" - but a sneak peek at the book-jacket summaries of its sequels bears that out.

This is Book 1 of the Vampirates sequence, which comprises six novels and a short story written for World Book Day 2007. The next book in the series is Tide of Terror. British based author Somper also wrote the young-adult thriller Allies & Assassins and its sequel, A Conspiracy of Princes. According to this book's biographical blurb, Somper took sword-fighting lessons to prepare for writing this book, and he operates a children's creative consultancy. I'm not sure what that is, but it sounds cool.

The Night Tourist

The Night Tourist
by Katherine Marsh
Recommended Ages: 13+

Jack Perdu is a ninth-grade Classics whiz who lives with his widowed father, a Yale University professor of archaeology. One day while crossing the street with his nose in Ovid's Metamorphoses, he has an accident that unlocks his ability to see ghosts. At first he doesn't understand what he is seeing, but when his father sends him to a strange specialist in New York, Jack is lured off his return trip by a ghostly girl named Euri who wants to give him a tour of the underworld.

It starts in the ninth sub-basement of Grand Central Station. From there Jack joins Euri in shooting out of one of the city's more than 50 public fountains, from which all the ghosts in New York emerge every night to fly around, haunt people and places if they're into that sort of thing, or just enjoy the night afterlife. Jack attends an orientation class for the newly dead, views a performance of a posthumous play by Tennessee Williams, enjoys an after-hours romp at F.A.O. Schwartz, and goes sliding in Central Park with a little less than his usual regard for the laws of gravity.

But mostly, what Jack wants to do is find his mother, who died in New York eight years ago. His attempts to trace her lead to one dead end after another, while time is running out before his deadline, at dawn the third night of his visit, to find his way back out of the underworld and rejoin the world of the living. Meanwhile, Euri seems to want Jack to help her undo the terrible mistake that put her where she is; and a night watch, led by a crooked ghost cop named Clubber Williams, is always a step behind them, hoping to feed Jack to a three-headed guard dog named Cerberus.

It's an absolutely undisguised update of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - the lovers separated by death, one of whom went down to bring the other out of the underworld, and almost made it too. It's so very, very undisguised that while Jack is living through it, he keeps consulting Ovid, who wrote the classic version of it. And though Euri turns out not to be Euri's real name - which, face it, would be just too weird - what Jack eventually discovers is that a different, happier ending might not have been so very different or happy after all. It's a moving, maturing discovery for Jack as well as for the young readers who join him on his quest.

This book won the 2008 Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. It has a sequel, The Twilight Prisoner, in which Jack returns to the underworld in a present-day teen version of another ancient myth. The managing editor of The New Republic magazine, author Katherine Marsh has also written the young adult novels Jepp, Who Defied the Stars and The Door by the Staircase.

The High Window

The High Window
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this hardboiled mystery classic, Hollywood private detective Philip Marlowe receives the following description of himself: "You are not as smart as you think you are, but... you are a guy things happen to, and a guy like that could be a lot more trouble than a very smart guy." The second half of this description could not be more true, as the lonely, existentially world-weary sleuth starts out looking for a rare coin and ends up discovering three murdered bodies. But even while some people take him for a fool, he fights his way doggedly to the truth - his way, adhering to his own code of honor, and steering a tight course between cooperating with the police (who could put him out of business in a heartbeat) and protecting his client (who does everything in her power to make the passage perilous). He is a paladin of justice in a corrupt society. He is a narrator whose wise-cracking observations of character and scene are a marvel of lyricism and economy, and whose description of his own personal space is just flat-out haunting. Check out the closing paragraphs of this book for a good example.

In this mystery, a rich widow hires Marlowe to find her daughter-in-law and prove she ran away with a mint-condition gold coin called the Brasher Doubloon. But almost immediately, he realizes someone has hired another detective to follow him. The young, not-too-bright detective confides in him as far as to say he has gotten out of his depth in something, and invites Marlowe over to his apartment to discuss it. That's where, bang! the first body drops. When Marlowe goes back for a second crack at a rare coin dealer who seemed to know where the Brasher Doubloon was, thud! goes the second corpse. And then his client's secretary, a neurotic young woman, shows up at his apartment in hysterics, and when he goes to look at the blackmailer she was trying to pay off, he finds the third cadaver crawling with frame-ups, secrets, and clues about not only the first two murders in this case, but about another body that dropped - whoosh! - out of the high window of the book's title.

It's a whodunit scarlet with red herrings, to say nothing of other red substances. Its dialogue crackles with wit, toughness, and danger. Its pages are laced with sentences and paragraphs that I would quote at you if space permitted. Just one more little example, just to whet your appetite: "A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins." How do you like that for a throw-away description of a throw-away character? Chandler writes, and Marlowe speaks, words that I want to hold on my tongue until they melt. And even after all the mystery has been demystified, there remains that raw nerve of Philip Marloweness jangling at the end, taking my breath away (as he always does) with his closing words.

This 1942 masterpiece is the third of seven Philip Marlowe novels completed by Chandler, coming after The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, but before The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback. Chandler also published a short-story collection, Trouble Is My Business.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The War of the Dwarves

The War of the Dwarves
by Markus Heitz
Recommended Ages: 14+

Tungdil Goldhand, the hero of The Dwarves, doesn't get long to bask in the glory of forging an axe of power, slaying a dark wizard, and being called to re-found an extinct dwarvish kingdom, one of five in the mountain-encircled realm of Girdlegard. His true love's clan refuses to give him her hand in marriage because, in spite of his heroics, they don't trust him - a foundling, an orphan, and a member of the Thirdling kingdom, known as the dwarf killers because of their murderous hatred of all other dwarves. Even though Tungdil was raised by humans and has never wished to harm a dwarf, he must stand by and watch another dwarf become both the first king of the new Fifthlings and the husband of Balyndis.

While Tungdil nurses his broken heart, new threats are arising in Girdlegard. Like its hero, the realm doesn't get much time to breathe after its last victory over evil. The last surviving mage uses treacherous means to recruit her famula, or apprentice, to pass on the secrets of magic. This proves to be a mistake, because Narmora is not the type to forgive or forget. Her moment of vengeance comes just when the danger is greatest and Girdlegard needs its mage more than ever. For on the one hand, the Thirdlings are deviously trying to drive a wedge between the dwarves and their human and elven allies, without whom the realm is defenseless against orcs, goblins, and worse. On the other hand, one particular band of orcs has discovered the secret to a kind of undead immortality, and they are about to make a move on the Fifthling kingdom just as it starts to rebuild its defenses. On the third hand, a meteor collision, earthquake, and avalanche play havoc with other dwarven strongholds. On the fourth hand, there's a race of dark elves called älfar, who just want to kill everybody. And on the fifth hand, there's a rumor that some kind of demigods, or avatars of the god of chaos and evil, are preparing to unleash a scorched-earth brand of cleansing on the lands and peoples of Girdlegard. And while in the thick of all these crises, Tungdil must deal with personal losses, betrayals, vendettas, and an all-but-ceaseless series of battles to the death.

It's an action-packed story, challenging its hero with a complex weave of cosmic and personal problems, and recalling many other deeply moving myths in which there is no place for the hero in the world he has saved. It is a thick, bustling, heavily populated tale of folklore within folklore, threats within threats, plots within plots, and an enormously high body count by the end. It also has endearing comic-relief characters, tragic romances, astounding feats, clever gambits, and subtle political ploys. It satisfies on so many levels that it is bound to please almost anybody who goes in for dwarves, orcs, elves, and wizards.

The only thing I would ding this book for is its irritating conceit of calling days "orbits" and years "cycles." The "orbits" bit in particular does not make sense. Why not call a day a day and a year a year? Why does this have to be hard?

This sequel to The Dwarves was translated from German to English by Sally-Ann Spencer. It is the second book in the "Dwarves" series, and is followed by The Revenge of the Dwarves and The Fate of the Dwarves. A fifth book in the series, The Triumph of the Dwarves, is not yet available in English. Heitz has also written a related series called "The Legends of the Älfar," a thriller set in the modern age titled Oneiros, and many more dark fantasy titles yet to be translated.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

197. Minor Prophets Hymn

The full title of this piece is "Minor Prophets Hymn: Warning and Promise." I don't think a single hymn I have written has ever taken me longer to write. The challenge of compressing the last twelve books of the Old Testament into one "heroes of the faith"-type hymn, is that I had to read every one of those books, a total of 65 chapters of Scripture, one book at a time while writing each stanza. Besides a period of planning, brainstorming, and generally psyching myself into it, the actual writing process took me three or four days. And for all I know, it still needs touching up. But here, at least, is a first look at it, along with the tune ELIJAH, which I wrote for this hymn. Don't be put off by the 14-stanza length. It is designed so that a group studying any one of the minor Old Testament prophets could sing just the first and last stanza, inserting between them the verse relevant to the prophet they are studying.
God, who sent the twelve of old
Swift to seek Your straying fold,
Let us now their warning hear;
Let their promises draw near!
Through their oracles, we pray,
Make us ready for Your day,
Every heart to Jesus pointing,
With repentant faith anointing!

Lord, who through Hosea’s love
Israel’s harlotry reproved,
Call your straying people forth
From the daughters of the earth!
Show her mercy in her need;
Let her be Your bride indeed!
With a husband’s love come nigh her;
Out of death and Hades buy her!

Lord, with heart, not garments, rent,
Joël calls us to repent;
Be the God his writings trace,
Slow to wrath and swift to grace!
Pour Your Spirit on all flesh,
Stirring faith in You afresh;
Make Your church a holy mountain,
Watered by a cleansing fountain!

Lord, who with no secrets deal,
But to seers the truth reveal,
Amos heard Your roar of ire;
Save us from that awful fire!
Sift a remnant from all lands;
Raise their ruins by Your hands,
Ne’er the fruit of faith denying
Gentiles on Your name relying!

Send deliverers in time;
Burn away Your people’s crime!
As our foes their triumph drink,
Into nothing let them shrink!
Lord, with Obadiah’s throat,
Roar at them who idly gloat
Over Israël’s disaster;
Show Yourself the nations’ Master!

Jonah fled your gracious wish;
Catching him inside a fish,
You made Him proclaim the Word
Nineveh, with sorrow, heard.
Though Your messengers rebel,
By them warn us, too, from hell!
Christ, arisen Jonah-fashion,
Save us by Your great compassion!

Micah warned the seers corrupt,
You their vision would disrupt,
Pouring wrath on pious fraud;
Then he saw the Son of God,
Who from Judah would arise,
Nor would Bethlehem despise.
Who is like You, Lord—forgiving,
And in faithful mercy living?

Nahum Nineveh did warn:
She would fall, and none would mourn.
Meantime, Judah, lo! The feet
Running forth with tidings meet!
Even now, dear Lord, restore
Those who still Your name adore;
As our age’s shepherds slumber,
Rouse Your flock in mighty number!

Hear Habakkuk’s grave complaint;
Hasten, Lord, to help Your saints!
Let earth, with Your knowledge filled,
At Your presence now be stilled!
Though man’s pride will come to dust,
He who lives by faith is just:
Whose salvation You appointed,
Once for all, through Your Anointed.

Zephaniah saw that day
Of great darkness and dismay;
Yet, Lord, while the sinner wails,
Your just mercy never fails.
Give us pure lips for Your praise,
And a humble nation raise;
Take away Your bride’s dishonor;
Rain Your love and peace upon her!

Haggai bade Zerubbabel
Build a house for You to dwell;
Thus You, Lord, bade Judah’s seed
Turn to You in every need.
Nothing prospers in the land
Or the church, without Your hand;
Where You dwell, Desire of Nations,
Peace and glory find their stations.

Zechariah saw the King
Ride a donkey, peace to bring;
Heard You bid the Shepherd struck,
Lord, to break and heal Your flock.
Once again rebuke the foe;
Cover sin in robes like snow!
Hush all flesh, Your temple finding,
In Your Branch all nations binding!

Malachi set forth Your case,
Charging those who tempt Your grace;
Of Your messenger as well,
Christ’s forerunner, did He tell.
As Your day of dread again
Comes, Lord, turn the hearts of men,
Ere the Sun of Justice, rising,
Burns and heals with zeal surprising!

Glory to the Father, one
With His like-in-glory Son
And the Spirit, as before,
Even now and evermore:
God, who moved each seer and sage,
Speaking both by voice and page,
And whose promised visitation
Has secured to us salvation!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

13 Hours & Deadpool

Last night I splurged on myself and went to a movie. I arrived at the theater undecided about whether I wanted to see Deadpool, Zootopia or London Has Fallen. I wasn't interested in Risen and I wasn't even aware of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. So I asked the lady at the box office what I should see, and without a second's hesitation, she told me to see Deadpool. I did, and a good time was had by all - all three people in the movie theater, that is. I guess it wasn't a great Friday night at that particular cinema.

Deadpool is a very naughty, raunchy, violent, morally objectionable film. I can't believe there were actually moms who wanted the studio to re-cut it as a PG or PG-13 picture so their precious little cookie-crunchers could see it. I don't see what footage they could have used. They would have had to rewrite and re-shoot the entire film, and that would have resulted in a completely different movie. And it would have been a shame, because I liked this one. The only thing I felt awkward about was being the only person giving up belly-laughs. The other two people in the audience probably liked it, but they didn't join in the crowd feeling I was going for. I guess you need a crowd for that kind of thing.

Deadpool, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, is a physically and mentally messed up dude. Not a superhero. He puts on a costume to cover up his deformities and goes after the guy who made him that way, murdering dozens of minions and henchmen along the way. He has a superpower of the type that exists in the X-Men universe - brought to you by a mutant serum. He can, if you don't mind the spoiler, heal from any injury, including having limbs cut off and being stabbed in the brain. He has a couple of low-level X-Men (Colossus and Negatronic Teenage Warhead), neither of whom played much of a role in the comics or other Marvel movies, trying to keep him from getting in too much trouble and, in a feeble way, recruiting him as one of their own. He has a main squeeze, played by Morena Baccarin of Firefly, and a low-life buddy who runs a bar where mercenaries hang out between jobs, and a feisty blind old lady for a roommate, and a villainous nemesis named Ajax whose tag-line is "What's my name?" because Deadpool (whose tag-line is "Maximum effort!") keeps calling him Francis. Other than another villain, a super-powered chick named Angel Dust, the main cast is filled out by a comic-relief taxi driver character and a villainous recruiter whom I recognized as one of the goofy aliens in Galaxy Quest.

So, the plot, partly laid out in a series of flashbacks, is about how Wilson finds out he has terminal cancer and decides to accept an offer to cure his cancer, in return for being tortured into insanity and (according to the fine print) fitted with a slave collar. He blows the place up before the collar goes on, leaving him free to spend the rest of the movie looking for an opportunity to put a bullet through the forehead of Ajax, who did the nastiest torturing. Ajax, meanwhile, scoops up Vanessa, the love interest, and uses her as bait to draw Deadpool into their final confrontation on what appears to be the beached wreck of an aircraft carrier. How they got that thing on dry land, I can't even guess.

Aside from the plot, the movie is livened by a ton of fourth-wall breaking, wise-cracking, dirty language, sex, nudity, and graphic violence. There are also a lot of Marvel movie in-jokes, such as Deadpool (played by Ryan Reynolds) remarking that getting his looks back is totally important, because where would Ryan Reynolds' career be without his looks? Of course I've killed that joke now, but you can still enjoy the other ones, which I will leave be. Enjoying this movie is a wonderful exercise in suspending your sense of disgust at the moral bankruptcy of its main character and the colossal waste of human life that marks his progress through the world.

It is an antiheroic movie that appeals to antiheroic times. But it also leaves open a narrow, uninviting door to the possibility that some day, Wade Wilson might avail himself of (to borrow a bit of Colossus preachiness) four or five moments of opportunity to choose do to the right thing, and thereby become a hero. Probably won't happen, but who knows? The gulf from a smart-mouthed, hot-headed antihero to an extremely flawed, smart-mouthed, hot-headed hero is not so very great. And watching Deadpool teeter on the edge of it might be entertaining for a while.

My previous trip to the movies, maybe a month ago, was on a similar night when I had several choices, including (if memory serves) The Revenant and... nope. Memory doesn't serve. I think I chose 13 Hours for two reasons: I am sick of looking at Leonardo di Caprio's face; and it was starting as I walked into the theater.

All I want to say about it, at this late date, is that I was impressed by how well the movie succeeded in making me feel like I had been through the ordeal with the six men who defended the CIA compound in Benghazi the night U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens died. The rhythm of the film conveyed the feeling of growing exhaustion and despair as the night stretched on, and each interval of tense waiting was followed by an attack more insane than the last. The casualties were lopsidedly high on the side of the attacking Islamic militants and low on the American side, but another thing the movie let one feel was the frustrating uncertainty, dawning into horrifying certainty, that no help was coming from the U.S. armed forces, though they were certainly close enough to have intervened.

The film very subtly but effectively points out that all this happened hours after the White House was briefed about it, while broadcast media reports (originating from the White House) attributed the attack to a protest about an internet video - a protest that no one who lived through the ordeal had any recollection of seeing - and a report that belied the very strong signs that the attack had been planned a good while in advance. There was also that in the characterization of the CIA station chief's relationship to his security team which suggested the agency gave the shaft to the true heroes of the night. So it had a nice little political sting in it. But mostly what it excelled at was, as I said, conveying the feeling of being surrounded by armed lunatics and having to fight them off, all night long, waiting for any kind of help to arrive with shrinking hope that it ever would, and marveling that anyone could have survived it.

The cast was impressive. Comedian John Krasinski, late of The Office and It's Complicated, got a rare opportunity to show his chops as a dramatic lead actor and didn't disappoint, though the final cut of the movie may have allowed him to over-indulge just a wee bit. Playing the best-developed character of the four Americans who perished that night is James Badge Dale, a guy I've never noticed before, by name. I guess he's specializing in war movies, westerns, and action flicks, most of which I haven't seen; but I thought he gave a beautiful touch to the tragic character of Tyrone Woods. Playing one of the other heroes, but one who arrived at the compound with reinforcements just in time to be killed in the same mortar attack that ended Woods' night-long resistance, was sometime Bond villain Toby Stephens as Glen Doherty. Pablo Schreiber, Liev's half-brother and an up-and-coming young talent, played the most flamboyant of the team that defended the American compound that night. And in the role of the green (in multiple senses) security guy with the pretty eyes and the unfortunate mustache, whose loss of nerve contributed at least indirectly to the ambassador's death - or so this movie suggests - was David Giuntoli, whom I spent the entire movie thinking I had seen before, and only placed as the lead actor in TV's Grimm when I saw his name in the credits. Also in the cast were familiar TV character actor David Constabile as the station chief, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince alum Freddy Stroma as an abrasive young CIA spook with an inexplicable British accent.

But once again, to return to a theme I have touched on before, John Krasinski: this movie was his star-making moment, if only he takes proper advantage of it. We have seen him be a strong man for once, and not just a passive-aggressive nebbish. He could do without the beard he wore in this movie, though it might not hurt to keep the muscles. I'm not suggesting that he take the lead in a re-boot of Die Hard. I just think it behooves Hollywood to keep its eyes open for an actor who can really sell the role of an unapologetically manly guy, who is both sensitive enough to make us sympathize with the hell he is going through and strong enough to fight back and survive. That's a character people will pay to see, even if they're not sure such men really exist. And this is the kind of role that, in a movie whose politics aren't so out-of-step with those of Hollywood, might have earned him an Oscar nomination.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Farewell, My Lovely

Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
Recommended Ages: 13+

Years ago, when I reviewed Raymond Chandler's first novel The Big Sleep, I called it the first in a long series of Philip Marlowe mysteries. Actually, it isn't. Aside from a good-sized list of short stories, Chandler only completed seven novels; he left an eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death in 1959, to be completed 30 years later by Robert B. Parker, who also wrote an original novel featuring Marlowe titled Perchance to Dream. Based on having read only two of his seven novels, though, I perceive Chandler to be one of the great American novelists. And Philip Marlowe does have this on Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade: seven novels is seven times as many as one.

I loved The Big Sleep, and read it multiple times. Nevertheless, this book has stayed untouched on my bookshelf for several years. In part, I think, I was holding out for the whole series, so I could read them back to back. But as soon as I finally started reading this book, I was so caught up in the world of the pre-1940 Los Angeles P.I., it was almost as if I had never left it.

In this adventure, based in part on two or three short stories published in the early 1930s, Marlowe stumbles by accident into a mystery thick with suspects, motives, betrayals, and strange coincidences. Pausing on a sidewalk after losing the trail of a runaway husband, he spots a gigantic, loudly dressed, white goon pushing his way into a black nightclub. He lets his curiosity draw him into what becomes a murder scene. Noting that the police detective assigned the case shows little interest in solving it (political incorrectness advisory: racism was a thing in 1930s L.A.), Marlowe does a little digging himself, only to be distracted by another case in which his client is murdered almost under his nose.

The two cases prove to have unexpected connections, leading Marlowe to match wits with a crooked psychic adviser, two crooked cops and their crooked police chief, a crooked doctor who runs a crooked private hospital, and finally the crook who runs all the rackets in Bay City, California. And it all leads back to the sequence of events that started the whole thing, and a killer named Moose Malloy, and one of two beautiful women who have offered themselves to Marlowe during the course of his investigation. And naturally, it ends in blood, blood, blood.

Let me tell you about some of the things I love about Philip Marlowe. He has a mouth on him. The things he lets out of it, regardless of the social situation he's in at the time, vaguely suggest a self-destructive streak. But he is undeniably an original. Hardly a page goes by, and really very few paragraphs, in which he does not deliver himself of a rich bit of description, backed up by delicious and unexpected metaphors and dry, unsparing wit. He makes women vacillate madly between loving and hating him. He enjoys terrifying moments of intimacy with deadly men. He tries the patience of the cops, but he helps the good ones whether they want his help or not, and he helps some of the bad ones do better - often by thwarting their purposes and keeping key facts to himself until the crucial moment. He seems vulnerable and indestructible at the same time. He takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He admits to being scared to death, yet doesn't turn back. He's always the first to figure out how all the pieces fit together, though he inevitably does so too late to stop a tragedy that he will end up feeling in a way that only adds depth to his character.

Marlowe, and his creator, are a gift to the reader, bringing laughter, suspense, romance, sympathy with his sorrows, and a strange blend of horror and nostalgia for a hopelessly corrupt yet fascinating time. He is the patriarch of private detectives. He is the eternally appealing voice on the edge of a cityscape bleached by sunlight by day and smothered by darkness at night. He is the type of character who allows one to feel oneself to be at the center of the action in a novel that, in my estimate at least, approaches perfection.