Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reel To Reel: Trouble With The Curve

"What a drag it is getting old." --The Rolling Stones

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, references to sex

I don't buy into conspiracy theories, but part of me believes Clint Eastwood's now-famous empty-chair interview at the Republican National Convention was stealth marketing for this film, which just happens to feature Eastwood as a grumpy old man similar to the gritty old pol we saw on stage. I thought Gran Torino might be his last film in front of the camera. I'm glad it wasn't.

Eastwood plays Gus, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who refuses to believe it's time to retire. His vision is going, and he can barely get around without tripping over something. Those dents on the car are not his fault; the garage shrunk on him. His bosses, including longtime buddy Pete (Goodman), aren't sure he can handle a blockbuster assignment: scouting a high-school slugger in the Carolinas who's supposedly the baseball equivalent of LeBron James. It becomes clear this may be Gus' last assignment.

He's mildly estranged from his daughter Mickey (Adams), a workaholic lawyer aiming to make partnership with a presentation on a big case. Gus' stubbornness maddens her, and she carries a grudge for Dad sending her away after the death of her mother. Still, she can't help but feel a responsibility towards him. Prodded on by Pete (Goodman), Gus' longtime boss and friend, Mickey heads off to join her father on the scouting trip to make sure he comes back alive, at least.

Trouble With The Curve would be fine as a father-daughter baseball movie. But no, we get a tacked-on romantic subplot featuring Johnny (Timberlake), one of Gus' scouting buddies who's got his eye on Mickey. The two bond over baseball stats, which I find a little puzzling given Mickey's frazzled relationship with her father. What do I know: Mickey's talents as a lawyer likely give her the power to process reams of information in ways I haven't considered. Timberlake's character seems to be along for the ride, pushed in Mickey's direction because somebody thought this film needed another plot hook.

Eastwood, on the other hand, has still got it. He's grizzled and a bit slower but still a compelling screen figure. I wanted this film to be about rebuilding a relationship, and baseball lends itself nicely to allegory in so many things. But at the end of the day, it comes down to studio heads knitting their fingers about younger audiences, and a call goes out to Timberlake's people. I really hope this isn't Eastwood's last-last picture on screen. I also hope some suit realizes old guys still rule.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Reel To Reel: Lawless

White lightning and dark dealings.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain
Rated: R (borderline NC-17)
Red Flags: Intense, graphic bursts of violence, nudity and sensuality and strong language. This film is R for a reason, and it tests the limits of that rating.

In the Great Depression of the 1930's, only one business seems to thrive: bootlegging. And in the mountains of my beloved state of Virginia, moonshiners are cranking out product as fast as they can move it. Lawless focuses on Franklin County, Virginia in 1931, where the 'shine business rules. If you aren't making it, you're buying it, or you know somebody who does.

The Bondurant brothers are the biggest name in the trade, propped up by a legend of near-immortality. They've survived Spanish Flu and whatever else tries to take them out. Forrest (Hardy) runs the business side out of a gas station with a laconic, barely-coherent mumble and brass knuckles when necessary, which is often. Older brother Howard (Clarke) provides more muscle, and kid brother Jack (LaBeouf) is the lookout full of ideas who's begging to get in on more of the action.

Although the Bondurants pay off the local sheriff's deputies, they can't stop corrupt Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce), who wants a cut for the Franklin County D.A. Rakes comes all the way from Chicago, and the obvious question is why a Virginia lawman would need to look that far, given the ruthlessness we see among Virginia's moonshining mountain men. Then we see our answer: it's impossible to find sharp-dressed, sadistic thugs in Virginia to do your bidding with hankerchiefs and white gloves. Fellow critic Roger Ebert describes Rakes as "foppish," a form of that word usually reserved for garishly-dressed 18th Century men, and I can't describe him any better than that.

Rakes doesn't seem to understand he's messing with the wrong people. Bullying the brothers just makes them tougher. Forrest survives a throat-slashing at the gas station's restaurant when two men harass Maggie (Chastain), a dancer from Chicago who's now working as a waitress after wanting to get away from big-city life.

Jack, frustrated with Forrest's lack of business development, takes a big risk and sets up a deal with gangsters to bring in more money. Combined with his ideas to improve the operation, the brothers haul in piles of cash. Jack seems to have most of it, and he spends it on fast cars and fancy clothes, looking like some misplaced mobster. He hopes he can woo the heart of Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), an Amish girl -- although the film never uses the word "Amish" -- under the tight leash of her father. The film gives us a rare look inside an Amish church service, and an even rarer look at what happens when a drunk man, Jack, stumbles into one.

The sacrilege is the tamest of the film's squirmy moments. You'll have to endure bloody fisticuffs, slashing, mutilations, hints of rape and gunfights peppered with salty language along with shock nudity. I won't blame you if you walk out. Really.

Lawless is dark, brutal and profane because of its source material. The film is based on the novel The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant, who based it upon the moonshiner operations of his grandfather and great uncles in Virginia. Even though he's had his own experience with 'shine, he still ran into trouble obtaining the facts to bolster his fiction. Decades after prohibition, people are still reluctant to talk about the business. That has me wondering: is moonshining really just about illegal liquor, or as this movie suggests, all the corruption surrounding it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Highlands In The Desert

The dance was intended to be informal and casual. Shorts were welcome. So were kilts. We couldn't help but make it something more. Once again, We Make History.

I've been a Stewart and a Cameron, but tonight, I'm a Campbell. My kilt announces it in deep hues of green, half-covered by my long linen 1740's weskit, also properly green. I finish it off with a Jacobite shirt, kilt hose and blue bonnet – with the white cockade, of course. If anybody asks what a Campbell is doing wearing a Jacobite bonnet, I can always say I'm a turncoat. If anybody asks why the kilt falls below my knees, I can say I'm honouring THE LORD with my modesty.

I miss Flagstaff this time of year. The green of the late summer and the cool among the pines leaves me wistful. The clans come together outside the great hall in celebration, everyone in tartans and gowns, smiles wide among faces. But now they're dressed up as if we were in the Highlands once again, in their gowns and kilts and bonnets as they enter the small Tucson ballroom.

“Does this go over the left or right shoulder?” a lady asks me as she ponders how to proper tartan sash over an 1800's hoopskirt.

“Any way you choose, my lady,” I respond. “But I usually wear it over the left shoulder.”

Clan Tucson is back. They are unmistakable in their brown and black tartans, honouring their desert heritage.

“We sewed this last night,” one member tells me, showing off his new, properly-pleated desert kilt. I hear several sewing machine needles snapped in the process, but the fruits of the labour are well tailored.

Our dance master, spirited yet casual, calls us to form sets and we are soon are bowing and curtsying to each other without any casual thoughts. We shall be sticking to the spirited reels this evening, accompanied by a virtual orchestra. It seems at least 30 or 40 people are here, and nearly every one is cavorting in merriment.

“In English dance, we glide,” a dancing master once told me, “but in Scottish we fly.” Indeed, many of the young lads and lasses are flying as they chasse and whirl around. Some – like your humble servant – prefer joyous yet elegant affectations, raising our hands and heads high as we turn. Somebody might well accuse us of being English spies.

Such flying requires refueling. The lads and lasses pause between dances to refresh themselves with cookies, tea, and copious cold water before it's time for a mid-diversion diversion. Dance 'em, Danno. In a growing tradition, we transition from the Highlands to Hawaii in a surf-rock version of the famous We Make History Pineapple Dance, with a medley featuring the theme from Hawaii Five-O.

You pass a pineapple to one person besides you, and then chasse off with the other. The rules are simple, but the variations are unlimited. Several people toss to others in line and charge in threes. Some people scamper away. Some lads dare to pass over the lasses and chasse off with each other. (That might be a cause for a duel, but that is another treatise.) But in the end, the person with the pineapple when the music stops wins the fruit of victory and likely a few juice concoctions down the line.

During a waltz, a highland lass generously shows your humble servant a box step. My feet have a hard time learning new things.

“You're doing it!” she cries, even though they still want to two-step at times, still clung to their Texas ways.

Later, she finds me again, hoping I wasn't embarrassed by the dancing lesson.

“No, not at all,” I tell her. It took a long time for me to learn a Scottish skip-change step, I explain, as I take up true Scottish Country Dancing. I show her, skipping on my right and left feet around the hall. She follows my lead.

“There's also a strathspey,” I explain, “which is a slowed-down skip-change with a hop.” I demonstrate: left step, close, left step, hop and swing the right through. Right step, close, right step, close, right step, swing the left through with a hop. My Scottish dancing masters would give me grief because my feet aren't pointing in a “T.” At times, I dance like the only boy in the ballet class. Not my dear lass, who follows after me.

A lad observes at us and wishes to learn it. I seize upon an idea.

“Take hands, and we'll do it together,” I say. The three of us improvise a sort of strathspey minuet across the room, Scottish meeting English... or French.

As the evening progresses, it's obvious. This is the Highland Ball we love, just a little smaller and sandier. That doesn't change our hearts' desires. Why be casual when we can kilt up and celebrate? Not that we disparage anybody who doesn't, but the freedom to be fancy is there for those who want.

Rife with afterglow, we descend upon a pizza parlour up the street late on the Friday evening. Humongous slices of Italian pie satisfy our cravings. With the establishment nearly to ourselves, we zestily dance in the aisles to the rhythms of the disco age. Clan Tucson dances the Breakdown... and then the Can-Can.

We are family, of good times, staying alive to the night fever because we should be dancing, yeah...

And you should be dancing, too. Check out We Make History for more about their Casual Dance Series -- and many other good historical offerings!