House of Names a Superb Retelling of Agamemnon's Hubris


Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 275 pages

It's hard to go wrong writing a novel based on Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks pretty much invented Western drama, which means they were the early masters of its key elements: mayhem, murder, intrigue, betrayal, ghostly visitations, and sex (in all varieties). Not that Colm Tóibín needs to mine the past for inspiration; he's already proved his chops as one of the better fiction writers of our times (The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Brooklyn). Still, why not put one's literary skills to work with a retelling of Greeks immediately after the Trojan War?

Tóibín draws from various sources—Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, Sophocles—and has developed a synthesis that is uniquely his own. First, a note on the multilayered meaning of the book's title. Ancient Greeks practiced bisexuality and slept around like springtime rabbits, but its social structure was patriarchal and familial. One of the more famous houses was that of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who commanded the combined Greek forces during the Trojan War. In many ways, though, the collective house name was more important than the individual male whose name it bore. History was often orally transmitted, with cycles of tales centering on a particular house of names. In Tóibín's novel, lesser houses also 'survive' only when its tales are told—long after its last descendants have passed. A house of names matters deeply—even to an old woman who is herself never named. 

For those who have forgotten so much mythology that Homer now evokes "Simpson," here is a quick recap of the germane part of the House of Agamemnon story. The winds did not cooperate with Agamemnon's departure for the Trojan Wars. At the behest of a soothsayer, the king agreed to sacrifice his beautiful daughter Iphigenia in exchange for favorable winds. He sails off, is gone for ten years, and returns home victorious, with Cassandra as war booty. (She's doubly imperiled, her other curse being that she can foresee the future but no one believes her prophecies.) Much has happened in the decade in which the king has been gone, including the fact that his wife Clytemnestra has taken a lover, the wily Aegisthus. One thing hasn't changed: Clytemnestra has never forgiven her husband for sacrificing Iphigenia and has been plotting revenge since the day her daughter was killed. Also, her son Orestes is missing. He was sent away as a boy shortly after his father left for war for reasons that vary according to which playwright tells the tale. In Tóibín's story, his sister Electra is suspiciously implicated in what is, in essence, a kidnapping and imprisonment, though it may have all been Aegisthus' doing. Agamemnon's triumph is a short one; he will be murdered by Clytemnestra's hand and she in turn will meet a bloody end.

That's the Greeks for you; there's no drama unless there's more blood than found in the punchbowls of a vampire ball. Tóibín divides his short novel into sections told from the points of view of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. His is not just a recounting of myths in modern language á la Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. There is seldom a single narrative thread in Greek myths, which frees Tóibín to create a new synthesis. I don't know of any tale in which Leander and Orestes appear together; in House of Names we first meet young Orestes in an awful detention camp that's like a Dickens boarding school in chitons. He will eventually befriend a sickly lad called Mitros and Leander, who becomes his soul and bedmate. The three will escape and spend years at the seaside home of a mysterious old woman. In Tóibín, Leander is a much stronger figure than Orestes; both lads (minus Mitros) will return home shortly after Clytemnestra has dispatched Agamemnon. Orestes will avenge his father's death, Leander will lead a revolt, Electra plots, and it's not going to end well for anyone. Hey, that's what makes it a drama, not a fairy tale. That and the fact that spies and treachery abound everywhere—think the "little birds" of Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. Trust me when I tell you that you'd not want to be a member of a prominent ancient Greek family.

House of Names is beautifully written. Consider this small sample in Clytemnestra's voice as she remembers the death of her childhood nurse/nanny: "I went out and looked at the sky. All I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What had once been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory locked in its rhythms, of a vivid past when our words rose up and found completion. Now our words are trapped in time, they are filled with limits, they are mere distractions, they are as fleeting and monotonous as breath. They keep us alive, for which we should be grateful. There is nothing else."

Tóibín's prose is reminiscent of the novels and poems of Robert Graves (1895-1995), who also based many of his works on Greek and Roman mythology. House of Names deserves to be mentioned in the same august company. It is imaginative, well crafted, and eloquent. As you read Tóibín, keep in mind what I said about the importance of the name of the family; it will help you make sense of motives that would otherwise seem illogical. In ancient Greece, reputation is more potent than adoration (or a long life).

Rob Weir

Moonglow Not Chabon's Best, but Holds Intrigue


Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 428 pages

Michael Chabon's Moonglow is a novel. Or is it? The book's narrator is called Mike and two of its major characters have no name other "my grandfather" and "my grandmother." Many have speculated the book is either wholly or partially autobiographical, assertions upon which Chabon coyly refuses to comment. Is it or isn't it; that's not really the question. Better to ask is it a good book, and my assessment is that it's a mixed bag. It is, at turns, eloquent and gripping, but also plodding and self-indulgent.

The book's set up is that Mike is summoned to his grandfather's deathbed and, over the course of ten days, hears tales that are part confessional, part historical, and part familial. As befits such a scenario, the book plays lose with linear time. Our first major incident unfolds in 1957, but the book's core is revealed in a 1944 exchange between grandfather and William Donovan, who headed the Office of Strategic Services—the forerunner of the CIA—during World War II. Donovan was recruiting intelligence officers to go deep into Germany during the war's waning days and unearth information about Nazi rocketry. As a man nicknamed "Wild Bill," he wasted no time with pretense. "You've been looking for trouble your whole life," says he to grandfather. The book's central tension is whether that's literally true, or if our protagonist is simply the sort of chap that trouble always manages to find. He's certainly the sort who marches to a different drummer, a trait we glimpse in his adolescence, the war years, the 1950s, and into old age.

Donovan's task suits grandfather well, as he is an introspective man obsessed with rockets. As a youth, when not hustling pool, he built detailed scale models of missiles and launch facilities, a hobby that took on greater sophistication and continued throughout his life. By 1944, he was also obsessed with Wernher von Braun, whom he wished to eliminate. In the book, he came close to finding his quarry; there is a harrowing showdown between he and Stolzmann, another Nazi scientist failing to pose as a farmer. Of course, we know that he didn't get von Braun. If you think that the morality of government today has problems, consider that Operation Paperclip granted residency and eventual citizenship to at least 1600 Nazi scientists, including von Braun. Many of these individuals became the foundation of both America's nuclear weapons programs and of NASA. This gives poignancy to the grandfather, who has retired to Florida and never misses a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral.    

If only von Braun were his only tension. After the war grandfather acquires a French-born wife who already has a child: Mike's mother. She's exotic, vibrant, wild, a Jewish survivor of Nazi death camps, and as mad as a March hare. Grandmother spends much of Mike's childhood in and out of asylums before dying—often obsessed with images of the "Skinless Horse." To say that grandfather didn't live a conventional life is an understatement. About that 1957 'incident,' Mike's grandparents were living in Philadelphia when grandfather went berserk when he lost his job with a barrette manufacturer who fired him to give a job to a recent parolee: Alger Hiss! Hiss left prison and grandfather went to Wallkill for almost murdering his ex-employer. Add "jail bird" to his checkered résumé.

Moonglow, which takes its name from a Benny Goodman standard, is filled with quirks such as these. There are also offbeat relatives such as his flamboyant rabbi brother and a late-in-life love interest; also amusing incidents involving bad theme parties, a missing cat, Tarot cards, python hunting, and grandfather's propensity for finding himself amidst smart alecks and fast talkers whom he can't decide if likes of loathes. On the more serious side there are questions about Jewish identity, PTSD, and mental illness. A Zippo lighter operates as Chabon's version of Chekov's gun. Some of my favorite parts are of Chabon's descriptions of 1950s culture. You can almost sniff your way through the decade via remembrances of the smells of Lifebuoy soap, Prell, Ban, smoke-filled rooms, and Tom Collins cocktails.

As noted, the structure is non-linear. Although this gives the hook of capturing remembrances verisimilitude, it also makes for ragged reading on occasion. There are also passages that reference and are inspired by Gravity's Rainbow, which isn't necessarily a good thing. That Thomas Pynchon novel also covers World War II and rocketry, but I'm among those who found it overrated, unreadable, and pretentious. Some of those traits rubbed off on Chabon. When he's at his best, Moonglow is like The Things They Carried in the way it blurs fiction and non-fiction. Unlike Tim O'Brien, Chabon isn't consistent within that voice. I'm sure that some readers will find his handling of Nazi death camps—his protagonist helps liberate Nordhausen—oddly matter of fact in tone and ponder over why a Jewish character would allow a rocket obsession to take precedence over the surrounding horrors.

  Whether autobiographical or not, Moonglow is a bit like its namesake title. It mostly glows dimly rather than brightly, thought illumined d by the occasional supermoon. It's certainly worth reading, but it doesn't rank among Chabon gems such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, Telegraph Avenue, or the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Rob Weir


Molly's Game Deals Middling Hand

Directed by Aaron Sorkin
STXfilms, 140 minutes, R (language, some violence, drugs)

The toughest review to write is of a work that neither stinks like rotten fish nor soars like a hawk. Molly's Game falls into that category. One thing is certain, though: its hype is greater than its delivery.  

Jessica Chastain plays the role of Molly Bloom (b. 1978) and most of what you see actually happened. Bloom hails from a high-achieving Colorado family—one brother is a two-time Olympian and former NFL player, the other a surgeon—and her psychologist father really was her ski coach before a devastating back injury destroyed Molly's Olympic dreams. As in the film, Molly was on her way to law school before impulsively moving to Los Angeles for a gap year in the sun. Her family cut her off and she needed to earn her own freight, a journey that took her from waitress to high-stake poker gopher for real estate agent/nightclub owner Darin Feinstein. His name is changed to Dean Keith in the film and is played with abusive creepiness by Jeremy Strong. The film club is called the Cobra Club, but the real one is the Viper Club where River Phoenix overdosed in 1993. Eventually Molly spun off her own game—one with buy-ins routinely in excess of $10,000. Among its clients was a veritable bad boys' celebrity list, among them: Leo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Macaulay Caulkin. They are thinly veiled in the film, though their names were public before Molly's book hit the stands in 2014. The movie's Player X (Michael Cera) is partly a composite, but he is mostly Tobey Maguire, who—sad to say—is apparently a world-class asshole who gets his kicks from belittling people. Molly's Hollywood game was glitz and glamour that catered to the arrogant, rich, and amoral. As Molly learns, everyone there is running a game of his own—always his—and as smart as she is, hers is not the hand that commands the power grid. Although she gains wealth from running the game, we're talking the kind of stakes in which one player lost $100 million in a single evening.

One of the lessons of the film is that Molly is, in her own way, arrogant as well. When she's shut out of the Hollywood game, she transports it to New York City, whose high roller rubes and regals have even deeper pockets, if less celebrity star power. Molly's game has rules. Gorgeous women in sexy attire abound, but there is no sex or procurement thereof; her Playboy bunnies are chosen for their business savvy as well as their curves. Also, no drugs, no players she doesn't vet, and no rake for Molly as that would constitute an illegal unlicensed casino. Technically, Molly works for tips and hospitality services. All is legal and aboveboard—until it isn't.  Call it a classic case of diving into water too deep and too swift. Three years after she bowed out, ehe FBI raided her apartment, clapped her in irons, froze her accounts, and brought charges of money laundering and illegal sports gambling. She needed a lawyer, but had no way of coming up with a $250,000 retainer fee. In the film, lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) takes her case for reasons unclear even to himself. This is an invention; in actuality she had a team of lawyers—whose future payment was indeed uncertain—and the lead attorney was white, not African American. Molly's book and arrest was tabloid fodder back in 2014, until the next yellow journalism sensation chased her off the front page.

Molly's Game is a tight story, even if parts of it are invented. Molly was true to her word and did not out anyone not already fingered, but she was not as pure as presented on the screen. (There was a plea bargain, despite what the film says). There is much that can be said about the hypocrisy of a society that gives the odds on every sporting event, but declares most betting schemes illegal. There is even more to be said about one that busts a woman who facilitates gambling but doesn't touch the famous male players. Indeed, one might tackle the entire question of "victimless" crimes. Molly's Game infers such issues but in the end, it's a fairly routine film that we've seen before. Replace the cards with billiard balls and you have The Color of Money. Make it stocks and you have The Wolf of Wall Street or Other People's Money. Make it about thoroughbred horses and take your pick. Indeed, the story is much the same with poker itself, from Smart Money (1931) to Owning Mahowny (2003) and beyond.

Jessica Chastain redeems what would otherwise be a stock white hats/black hats film by gendering the story. Still, there are all the usual Hollywood tropes:  the loudmouth, the lovable loser, the tragic loser, the folksy judge, shadowy mobsters, a teary parent/parent confessional, the repentant… . Chastain stuns with her physical presence as well as her acting; she is drop-dead gorgeous and plays Molly as one part sophisticate and one part cocky naïf. It's the kind of role Julia Roberts would play, but with less depth. Chastain's radiance is such that the film feels meatier than it actually is, though I must give a shout out to Kevin Costner's secondary role as her father who is much better than I would have imagined.  But this film is ultimately like the real Molly Bloom—smart, but not smart enough. Both Chastain and the film are being touted for Oscars, but my money's on those smarter films and performances.

Rob Weir


Points North Mosher's Final Love Letter to Vermont


Howard Frank Mosher
Macmillan, 208 pages

One year ago, Howard Frank Mosher of Irasburg, Vermont passed away. Seven weeks before he died, Mosher completed his final novel, Points North. Like most of the things he wrote, Points North is about the most remote part of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom*—three counties, 2027 square miles and just 65,000 people. A state joke holds that the Northeast Kingdom is where Vermonters go to get away from it all. In Mosher's books, Essex, Orleans, and Caledonia counties are elided into Kingdom County, and the tale is spun that it was an independent republic after the Revolutionary War because it refused to accept the existence of slavery. (That was actually true of all of Vermont from 1777-91, though confusion over the borders between Vermont, New York, and Quebec also had to be settled until Vermont became the 14th state and the first to explicitly ban slavery.)

Mosher authored numerous books made into films by Jay Craven and is probably best known for Stranger in the Kingdom (1989), North Country (1997), and Where Rivers Flow North (1998). You could think of Mosher as the consummate regional writer and place him among company such Wendell Berry, Carolyn Chute, and William Faulkner, though he generally cited Twain and Cervantes as his role models and we can assuredly see in Mosher echoes of their wit, sense of the absurd, and penchant for flawed protagonists. Points North is a seven-generation collection of Kingdom County tales centering on the extended Kinneson family and loosely held together as recollections, discoveries, and retold legends between aging brothers Charlie and Jim Kinneson, the latter the editor of the (fictional) Kingdom Common Monitor.

In Points North, Kingdom County compensates for its paucity of residents with a surplus of colorful characters, among them runaway slaves, a fast-talking huckster evangelist, and a plus-sized heterosexual man who happens also to be a cross dresser and the best fiddler in the region! Mosher, like Chute, shows us both the picture postcard beauty of rural life, but also the struggles, heartbreaks and hardships of people living in a place with more scenery and winter than wealth or opportunity. Life in a region with a short growing season, declining farms, over 100 inches of annual snowfall, and subzero wintertime temperatures requires a delicate mix of steeliness and neighborliness and in Mosher the two traits are not always in balance. Most of his Kingdom locals are down-to-earth and plainspoken; the region is well watered, the humor is dry, and the tongues are often barbed—especially when clucking at outsiders. The Kinneson brothers sometimes speculate that were the area hermetically sealed, it might be better off; modernity and change come to the Kingdom like a knife in the back—a dam project that would flood a fishing camp held by generations of Kinnesons, cross-generational secrets aching to get out, grand old buildings that can't be kept up, historical societies seeking to keep the doors open, meddlesome government officials, and innovators who raise suspicion.  

I am loath to say more lest I spoil the delight of discovering Mosher's cranks, boosters, tragic figures, lovers, cantankerous men, strong women, heroes and heroines yourself. The tales unfold in non-linear fashion, which is, if you think about it, the way we actually learn history rather than how most of us read or write about it. Stories unfold like a cross between a dip into Jim Kinneson's newspaper back files and randomly recalled oral tales of people connected directly and indirectly by blood. A subtheme is the family stories one tells and those one shouldn't. Somewhere along the line Mosher tosses a curveball to the oft-repeated assertion that Vermont is the second whitest state in the Union. 

I have spent time in the Kingdom and can attest that it is, as Mosher presented, a place that feels like a land unto itself. In Points North, Nature is a silent character and that too feels right, especially when one gazes at the sides of the mountains not shredded by ski resort trails, icy lakes stretching into Canada, or down valley roads too far from the beaten path for leaf peepers. There's bitter irony in that Mosher presents much of the Kingdom's uniqueness as a fading way of life just as he was about to exit it.

Rob Weir   

* Former governor and U.S. Senator George Aiken (1892-1984) is credited with coining the phrase "Northeast Kingdom" in a 1949 speech.    

Recent Celtic Gems: Usher's Island, Beoga, Falkenau/Ullman, Polwart, Smith, and MacLean

The term supergroup is overused, but what term better describes Usher's Island? To follow the careers of Andy Irvine, Dónal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, Michael McGoldrick, and John Doyle is to stroll through Irish musical history from the pathbreaking 1970s to the present, with stops along the way labeled Planxty, The Bothy Band, Moving Hearts, Patrick Street, Lúnasa, and Solas. There is an ease with which veterans play that must be heard to be appreciated fully. On their self-titled release, these top-drawer musicians hit the mark from the start. "The Half Century Set" is a jocular nod to the fact that two of the members are now septuagenarians, but if you close your eyes it's 1974 and The Bothy Band has just launched into one of their complex sets in which instruments (guitars, bouzoukis, fiddle, flutes, whistles, mandolin, etc.) weave in, out, around, and through each other. Equally thrilling are the gliding flute notes of McGoldrick on "Five Drunken Ladies," McGoldrick, Glacken going old-style fiddle on "Sean Keane's," and the classic "Big Set" finale "John Doherty's."

The vocals are the only real nod to age and it's a brief one. Irvine is now 75 and his unique voice, though contracted in range, retains luster. We hear him in fine form on the traditional "Molly Bán," a signature tragic tale of a man who mistakes his love for a swan and kills her. To pull off a song requires wrenching emotion from what might otherwise come off as maudlin, and Irvine is up to the task. He's also on form on "Felix theSoldier," a song about the Seven Year's War, and I got a chuckle from the outrageous rhymes and music hall vibe of "As Good as It Gets," Irvine's reminiscence of youthful girl watching in Slovenia. At 70, Lunny doesn't sing much any more, but he valiantly reprises "Bean Pháidin," which he first sang more than 40 years ago. At a mere 46, Doyle has no trouble at all with "Wild Roving" (a variant of The Wild Rover) or "Heart in Hand," a retelling of the man credited with inventing the Claddagh ring and a credit to both Doyle's songwriting and his status as one of the very best Irish-style guitarists. Twelve solid tracks that are a glimpse back and a step forward—what's not to like? ★★★★★

Would that I could say that Dougie MacLean's New Tomorrow lived up to its title and stood the test of time as well as Usher's Island. MacLean (63) is one of my all-time favorite musicians (and people), but the mileage (and smoking) is starting to show. MacLean is enough of a pro that he remains worth a listen, but there is a sense that New Tomorrow is stamped from the Dougie MacLean brand (gentle songs, mild mysticism, bright guitar note cascades) could have taken more chances than it did. Call this a half-realized shift in focus. The title track, for instance, is a close recycling of 1985's "Singing Land," and MacLean noticeably strains to reach the higher notes. It happens elsewhere as well, but luckily there are stellar tracks that redeem the project's ragged bits. "Shadow of the Mountain" points to the new directions he's heading. The arrangement is bigger, the cadences quicker, and Jamie MacLean's bass and electric guitar provide heft. I felt the same about the mix of harmonica and electric and acoustic guitars on "Thunderbolt," a dark-hued rocker. "Never Enough" is also in the latter vein and an honest musing on time's passage. Overall, New Tomorrow is best when MacLean surrounds himself with other instruments and voices. Many of his songs are about time and there's no shame in turning the page to a new chapter. The most hopeful track is "Wild and Windy Night," which captures MacLean at what he does best—open gentle, segue to a catchy and repeatable chorus, and build to a communal sing-along. Even before his pipes gave out, Pete Seeger taught us that no matter how good a single voice might be, nothing beats a roomful of people singing together for the sheer joy of it all.  ★★★

Before We Change Our Mind is the seventh LP from the award-winning Northern Ireland quintet Beoga and it's another winner. Not many bands feature two accordions, but Beoga generally build their instrumentals around squeeze boxes manned by Seán Óg Graham and Damien McKee, which melodies around Eamon Murray's percussive bodhrán, Liam Bradley's keys, and Niamh Dunne's fiddle. Beoga have mastered big sets such as the pulsing "The Homeland Hero," but they like to tinker with them. "The Convict," for instance has the frenetic edginess of a Penguin Café Orchestra arrangement and keeps us slightly off-kilter by heavily accenting the two beat. The title track—oddly situated as track nine of eleven—also keeps us on our toes with a moderately paced jig that speeds up, then tamps down via Bradley's moody piano and then cuts to livelier accordion work. Just when you expect a flourish and big finish, Beoga drops back for a lighter touch. "Valhalla" is an unhurried set ornamented in part by cascading piano notes that cue other instruments to feather in. It's one of several pieces in which the sounds echo with such authority and fullness that you have to remind yourself there are just five musicians. Interspersed are fine vocals from Ms. Dunne: a lively take on the well-traveled "The Bonny Ship, TheDiamond;" a gorgeous a cappella rendering of "Wexford Town;" and crisp covers of Eamon O'Leary's "Like a Dime" and Tommy Makem's "Farewell to Carlingford." Toss in sensitive and quieter originals from McKee and Graham and it adds up to nearly flawless album. ★★★★★ 

Is it odd to toss the Appalachian-style album I Can Hear You Calling into a Celtic column? Not when you consider that fiddler Anna Falkenau grew up in Scotland, five-string banjo ace/lead vocalist Lena Ullman in Sweden, both now live in Ireland (Galway), and Andy Irvine endorses their recording. Irvine reminds us that many Celtic musicians cut their teeth on tunes and songs such as these during the Folk Revival, and those who know their ethnomusicology realize that much of today's "Appalachian" music originated in Ireland and the British Isles. One of the best places to hear this is the duo's cover of Skip Gorman's incongruously named "TheChilean Horsemen." Ullman's banjo is spare and haunting, but Falkenau's fiddle sweeps where many American old-time fiddlers clip. In like fashion, Falkenau's original "Apatchy Hunting in the Garden" has the feel of an old steam train, but echoes of it snaking its way into the North Carolina highlands settled by Scots-Irish. There's plenty here that could be straight out of Asheville—the deliberately scratchy fiddle notes that meld with the banjo in of "Goodbye Girls," the vocal catches of "Red Rocking Chair," Ullman's in-the-tradition "Blueberry"—but check out the new tune to "Black Jack David" and tell me what you hear in the seams. T trans-Atlantic fertilization comes across even clearer in a cover of Charlie Lennon's "Easter Lambs." The 79-year-old Lennon (County Leitrim) is a renowned Irish fiddle composer and if you compare what Falkenau and Ullman do with fiddle tunes from early 20th century Irish émigrés to America, you've just aced Ethnomusicology 101.★★★★

Finally, let me give a plug to two older CDs that I picked up in the only remaining music shop on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Both are spectacular and should be downloaded. Emily Smith doesn't travel to the U.S. very much these days and more's the pity. Nor are her CDs easy to find here, but you can download her 2013 compilation Ten Years. Listen to her spirited take of "Edward of Morton," the sweet exuberance of "Sweet Lover of Mine," the delightful optimism of "Butterfly," or the bouncy "A Day Like Today" and you'll be charmed. ★★★★

My only complaint about This Earthly Spell, an otherworldly delight from Karine Polwart is that this 2008 recording has eluded me this long. Scotland knows what everyone should: Ms. Polwart is a rare gem. Few have her ability to plumb the depths of sorrow, mystery, and joy, yet be equally convincing and real in each effort. Her voice is singular, her songwriting superb, and her sense of building a song as organic as the roots of a towering tree. Want a song that cuts through the bullshit of the culture of apology? Check out "Sorry," a hard-edged song that smashes with a velvet fist. Think of it as this flip side of "A Tongue That Cannot Lie," a drone-backed song based on an old Borders ballad. How about a song about the passage of time? "Rivers Run" will answer. Need a tear-your-guts-out reminder about the AIDS crisis? Try to keep a dry out while listening to "Firethief." If you need a jolt of uplift, it's hard to beat the simple yet nails-the-job "The Good Years." I could wax rhapsodic about Karine Polwart until winter turns to spring. Just trust me; you need to know about Karine Polwart. ★★★★★

Rob Weir


All the Money in the World A Portrait of Megalomania


Directed by Ridley Scott
TriStar Pictures, 133 minutes, R (violence)

If you are watching All the Money in the World and suspect what you're seeing isn't entirely accurate, you're right. But it's probably not the parts you think. Its central absurd core is absolutely true; that is, in 1973, sixteen-year-old John Paul Getty III was abducted in Rome by Calabrian mobsters and held for $17 million in ransom. His grandfather, though his favorite grandchild's life was in peril and he was the richest man in the world at the time, refused to pay it—partly because he feared it would spark further kidnappings and partly because he despised terrorists, but mostly because he was such a tightwad he'd squeeze a twenty till Lincoln screamed. Young "Paul" was not released until five months later, after his captors cut off an ear to prove they were prepared to kill their captive, and not until the price dropped to $3 million. Even then, Getty ponied up just $2.2 million, as that was the maximum tax deduction he could claim. He loaned his son John Paul, Jr. the remaining $800,000 at 4% interest!

All the Money is the World is a study in megalomania. It's no Citizen Kane, but it's better than most of the early reviews purport. It took quite a lot of backpedaling to get it out in time for the awards season. The movie was originally finished in the summer, but with Kevin Spacey cast as the elder Getty. Gay sexual harassment charges reduced Spacey from star to box office poison, which prompted director Ridley Scott to slice all of Spacey's scenes and reshoot them in a single month with Christopher Plummer as Getty (1892-1976). This hasn't boosted the early box office, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Plummer. It would be shocking were he not to gain a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. His Getty is filtered through a misanthropic acid vial. At one point in the film, the five-times married/five times divorced Getty calmly explains that he prefers things to people as material possessions seldom disappoint. At the time of the kidnapping, Getty Sr. had pretty much walled himself into a high-security estate in England where he could monitor his oil fortune and revel over his precious art collection (which posthumously became California's Getty Museum). We watch Plummer disdainfully dismiss those seeking to help his grandson, as he reads the stock ticker.

Charlie Plummer—no relation to Christopher—plays J. P. Getty III (1956-2011). He's fine in the role, though he doesn't need to do much more than be clueless in the early part of the film and defenseless the rest of the way through. He does, however, give us glimpses of why JP III was expelled from his English boarding school, why he had a reputation for being a reckless brat posing as a hippie, and why his post-release life was tragically foolish. Mostly, though, the film is a vehicle for Michelle Williams as Paul's mother Gail, and her efforts to convince his grandmother to ransom Paul. I generally like Williams as an actress, though I'm not sure why she has been so highly praised for this role. She plays frustration and exasperation very well, but she never really convinced me that she had much maternal anguish. There is considerably more chemistry between Williams and Mark Wahlberg, who plays Fletcher Chase, an ex-CIA man, Getty security chief, and go-between. Chase is not a Hollywood invention; he really was a key liaison between the kidnappers, Gail, law enforcement, and Getty Sr.

Some of the other details are more for effect than accuracy. Paul's father, John Paul Getty (Andrew Buchan), Junior (1932-2003), is portrayed as a hopeless drug addict. This is uncertain at the time. He and Gail divorced in 1964, nine years before his son was abducted. His second wife had died in 1971, he was a depressed, and perhaps using drugs in 1973, but he played as large a role in trying to secure his son's release as his ex-wife and simply did not have a fortune at the time. Scott elides time. Junior later fell prey to severe addiction, but not until after his son's release. In like fashion, the elder Getty died in 1976, not as implied in the film, shortly after Paul's rescue. Nor did Paul's final despite flight from the 'Ndangheta crime syndicate actually occur; it was added for dramatic tension.

The liberties taken with fact scarcely matter; after all, Charles Foster Kane wasn't literally William Randolph Hearst either. Ridley Scott really wants us to contemplate age-old questions such as when is enough, enough? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Do the ultra rich lack morality? Are ego and self-aggrandizement the engines that drive the rich man's train? I don't know if Scott wants us parallel J.P. Getty Sr. and Donald Trump, but it's rather hard not to do so. Scott is always a masterful storyteller with an interesting movie palette and this taut drama is no exception. I doubt this film will go down as a great Ridley Scott film, but it's good enough, which is more than can be said about the Getty clan.

Rob Weir


Inconvenient Sequel an Important Message Imperfectly Delivered

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Paramount Pictures, 99 minutes, PG

This recent documentary on climate change is the update of former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth. As everyone knows, Gore came out on the short end of the disputed 2000 presidential election. Were it not for the fact that Gore’s overthrow led to the inept presidency of George W. Bush, one might conclude that losing the White House was the best thing that ever happened to Gore. As the leader on the front lines on the dangers of climate change Gore is everything he was not as an elected official: passionate, warm, funny and, above all else, convincing. It’s always tempting to list Gore with Jimmy Carter—failed pols whose lives outside of the Beltway are more admirable than when they held elected office.

Gore has also become the bette noire of climate change deniers. Critics have tried two strategies to silence Gore. One pegs him a modern-day Cassandra sounding warnings of doom that are not even real, let alone pending. Another group casts him as Pollyana—a tree-hugging liberal with stars in his eyes. Both ultimately fail because Gore has science on his side. If you want a analogy, view Gore as the Neil deGrasse Tyson of environmentalism—a science geek with the gift of making complex concepts intelligible to those without STEM degrees.

Gore, of course, has another advantage working for him. He has walked the corridors of power and has far easier access to places where change can foment: the United Nations, global conferences, even small-town council meetings. One of the film’s more poignant moments sees Gore in Georgetown, Texas to praise its shift to relying on 100% renewable energy sources. We see Gore rubbing elbows and trading jokes with Mayor Dale Ross, who is the very essence of a good ‘ole boy—a rotund, plain-spoken, glad-handing conservative Republican. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of a Republican town smack dab in the middle of oil-crazy Texas turning its back on fossil fuel. This scene is also another measure of how comfortable Gore has become in his new skin. Now that he’s been freed from the purification of party politics, he can make connections on a personal level and build bridges that cross conventional boundaries.    

Gore easily slides back into the statesman/hard ball politics when he must. In the film we watch as he negotiates a last-moment deal that could have scuttled the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. Developing nations spearheaded by India were reluctant to cut carbon emissions in the belief that their efforts to modernize would be stalled; some even saw it as a plot by Western nations to hold onto their global economic dominance (and they’re probably right to suspect that). We watch as Gore and his team pulled a rabbit out the hat by convincing SolarCity to advance zero-emissions technology to India in exchange for its signature on the treay. A critique: The film did not reveal that Gore has financial interests in SolarCity.

Kudos to Gore for his efforts. Kudos also for setting up activist training sessions on his Tennessee farm and his recognition that his farm’s fate, like that of a medium-sized town in Texas, is inextricably connected to melting ice in Antarctica of poisonous air over Mumbai.

As a reviewer, though, it’s my duty to say that this film isn’t a patch on An Inconvenient Truth. The directors abandoned the illustrated lecture format of the original in an atteot to humanize and personalize the film. Big mistake---and one reflected in the huge drop off at the box office from 2006. Too much time is spent watching Gore working the phones, riding in a limo (ooops!), hugging supporters, shaking hands with celebrities (including Justin Trudeau), or walking onto stages to thunderous applause. It’s almost as if the directors don’t trust the science to carry the message and want us to identify with Gore’s passion rather than the data, A times an Inconvenient Sequel strays into th excesses of some of Michael Moore’s film. Put simply, there’s too much of Gore on the screen, often doing very little to build any sort of dramatic tension. Overall, the fillmaking is pretty weak and this, sadly, diminishes what Gore has accomplished. Or should I say the network he has built? Charisma is a double-edged sword; on one hand it adds gravitas to cause, but its flip side distracts our gaze. I suspect that’s the last thing Gore would wish, even if he might enjoy having his ego stoked from time to time.

The film ends on an ominous note: the ascension of the dangerous Donald Trump. Trump has already done great damage and he simply doesn’t give a damn about the planet. What cares he, an amoral 71-year-old billionaire, about the future? Burning carbon inflates his portfolio like a force-fed hog.Now more than ever we must trust science. Not demagogues—an unaffordable luxury. I’m lukewarm about this film, but alas our planet is white hot. We need to listen to Al Gore now. If there’s An Inconvenient Truth III, chances are it will arrive too late.

Rob Weir


Faces Places a Stunning Celebration of Humanity


Directed by Agnés Varda and JR
Cohen Media Group, 89 minutes, PG (in French with subtitles)

Faces Places will restore your faith in humanity and you won't need a word of French to fall in love with its humanity. On the surface it's little more than the documentary of a road trip between two improbable buddies and a choreographed one at that. But, oh, what a road trip and, oh, what buddies.

Our protagonists are 89-year-old Agnès Varda and 34-year-old JR, she a famed film director and he a photographer known for giant paste-ups that blur the lines between street art, graffiti, and vandalism. If Varda's name doesn't rings bells, it's because you've seen too many "movies" and not enough "cinema." Varda is, simply, one of the most important filmmakers of all time, a diminutive giant of the French New Wave (1950s/60s) that made film into an art form. One utters her name in the same breath as icons such as Chabrol, Goddard, Rohmer, and Truffaut. She is to France what Bergman is to Sweden, Kurosawa to Japan, Fellini to Italy, or Orson Welles to the USA.

But now she's old, visually impaired, and museful of her mortality. She's also whip smart, opinionated, independent, and fearless. One sees that in her face, through her milky eyes, senses it in her bold concepts, and her quirkiness is perched upon her head: a whimsical crown of gray fringed by a copper dye job.  By conventional logic she should be puttering about by herself, not cavorting about the French countryside with a fedora- hatted hipster who never removes his dark sunglasses. Luckily, JR is also unconventional in all the right ways. We too often think of street artists as furtive renegades who live in shadows darker than JR's sunglasses (like Banksy), or as urban-toughened daredevils harboring antisocial values. JR, though, has a soft side: he loves the elderly, works with a stable team, welcomes opposing points of view, and has warm regard for his fellow creatures.

Faces Places is exactly as advertised—an investigation of stories etched on faces in the villages where prosaic dramas unfold. Varda and JR hit the road in his remarkable van, the back of which is an instant photo booth that, instead of spitting out strips of tiny head shots, disgorges large-size grey-tone images on thin paper from a slot on the right side of the vehicle. JR and his team then stitch together a series of these to make enormous assemblages that they paste circus-poster style onto the sides of buildings, factories, ruins, train cars—even shipping crates. He and Varda pursue a simple-but-noble goal: find ordinary people and honor them through public display. They don't waste time with the upwardly mobile, pretentious, or haute bourgeoisie; their subjects are farmers, postal carriers, factory workers, waitresses, village folk, and those living on the margins.

I was hooked from the opening credits, which rolled against a delightful backdrop of animated sketches, and began to feast from the first project: a drive into a small town where JR distributed baguettes to the locals, filmed individuals chomping into the bread, and then strung the images together for what might be the world's longest baguette! I was enthralled by a three-story poster of a postman—and what's more French than that?—complete with shutters and doors that open through the picture.

This is the sort of film, though, in which every viewer will be moved by different images. Two that resonated with me emotionally were of women. In the first of these, Varda and JR landed in a played out coal mining town where they found a block of homes scheduled for demolition. In the midst of these, they located an older woman who was the last resident of the street. They filmed her, enlarged her face, pasted it to the side of her home, and slathered the rest of the block with oversized archival images of village work scenes and long ago mine families. When she viewed it, she was so overcome that her speechless tears shouted out, "At last! Someone who understands."

I was also moved by the only non-village trip: to the shipping port of Le Havre, where the two talked to unionized dockworkers, most of them men whose fathers and grandfathers worked on the docks. Varda, though a supporter of the unions, sought out three women to photograph—with enthusiastic support from the men, by the way. She and JR created three monumental full-bodied portraits that were pasted onto veritable skyscrapers of stacked cargo containers. Varda then had each woman lifted into an open container approximately where the heart would be located in the surrounding illustration and each spoke of what she felt. Yeah—Varda has that kind of vision.

Everything in this film delights and astonishes. Sure, some of it is staged, but if ever a film has its heart in the right place, it's this one. Would that more of today's directors had an ounce of Varda's vision. Would that more of today's aging folks (ahem!) had more of JR's empathy.

Rob Weir


Shape of Water Bold, Inventive, Beautiful

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Fox Searchlight, 123 minutes, R (nudity, a few swears)

On paper, there's very little about The Shape of Water that works. Its star is an upright amphibian (Doug Jones) and the film's Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, admits that he's a near copy of the scaly protagonist of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Our female lead, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is—for most Americans—a little known British actress who plays a mute. Improbably for the film's time period, her best friends are Giles, a closeted gay graphic designer (Richard Jenkins) and an African American woman, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who works the nighttime cleaning shift with Elisa at the Occam* Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore. (Who, other than Barry Levinson and John Waters even makes movies that take place in Baltimore?) The villains are cardboard cutouts, there are no big "stars," and the script is a crazy quilt patching of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast, ET, and Japanese sci-fi.

Yet, improbably, it does work—brilliantly. The Shape of Water might not be the best picture of 2017, but it's certainly the most inventive and one of the most daring. Think a more watery magical realism vibe along the lines of Alejandro Iñárritu's Birdman (2014). If you know anything about del Toro, you know that he really likes monsters. He's the director who gave us other creature features such as Cronos (1993), Hellboy (2004), Blade II (2012), and Pacific Rim (2013). And if you've seen his previous masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth (2006), you know that his ogres serve a greater purpose. Such is the case in The Shape of Water.

The film is a love story straight out of Beauty and the Beast, to which del Toro gives direct homage. Yet it's also a film about disability, loneliness, marginalization, trust, social class, society on the cusp of change, and the Cold War. Did I say the Cold War? Yes. It's the early 1960s and the Russians have the early lead in the Space Race, so expect some spy intrigue. Much of that era seems misguided in retrospect, hence del Toro presents Cold War intrigue in a way that's part Frederick Forsyth** and part Mad Magazine's Spy vs. Spy. The focal point is, of course, "Amphibian Man" (as the film identifies him), a muscular bipedal specimen captured by Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and spirited back to the Occam Center for study in the hope he might be the US answer to Russia's Laika the dog—a sacrificial animal to be launched into space in advance of humans. The Ruskies also want him, or at least they don't wish the Americans to possess him. Del Toro dabbles in tropes from 1950s sci-fi: the military mind vs. the scientific mind, destruction vs. investigation, security vs. morality, and the age-old question of sentience. Let's even toss in Biblical rain as a key plot device—something we've seen in dozens of movies.

Yet it is in these things that del Toro works his greatest magic; he makes improbable things profound. There is, first, terrific acting from Hawkins, Jones, Spencer, and the much underappreciated Jenkins. Splashes of humor keep us off-kilter. Above all, though, is the overall feel of the film and sets that bring to mind the dark hues of films such as Metropolis (1927) and Sin City (2005); that is, Shape of Water is a noir(ish) dystopian live action graphic novel pastiche. There are wonderful visual puns for the keen-eyed, many of which involve textures and hues of green. Elisa and Giles live above a seedy one-screen movie palace, which foreshadows themes of isolation, loneliness, difference, and transformations not yet realized. We know that such theaters—and note how classic movie clips on movie and old-style TV screens parallel the story arc—are on their way out, but what of those caught between the decaying and the new? 

Giles embodies this. Not only does he remain closeted, he also cranks out advertising mockups appropriate for the 1950s Golden Age, images more out of fashion each day. Col. Strickland's home, family, Cadillac, male privilege, disdain for underlings, and yes-sir patriotism are also on the cusp of major challenge. Ditto things such as sexual identity, Jim Crow, and the marginalization of those with physical disabilities. Elisa has mysterious marks on her neck. She can hear, but she cannot speak, all of which add up to freak in those days. It is no accident that del Toro's characters are an intelligent monster, a mute, a homosexual, and a black woman with a blind husband. Nor is it accidental that a loss of fingers infers symbolic emasculation.  

On the surface, The Shape of Water is a cartoon-like caper and monster film. Yet from it comes something stunningly beautiful and transformative, a very different kind of love that dare not speak its name. You might shed tears at the end, or join those who spontaneously applauded (as happened the evening I saw it). The Shape of Water is why we go to the movies: to be taken to heights, depths, and imaginative places we'd not reach on our own. What does it mean to be different? If we break ugly surfaces, gems emerge.

Rob Weir

*I assume that the name Occam is deliberate. William of Occam was a 13th century philosopher best known for "Occam's razor," a principle that says that when confronted with competing theories that point to similar conclusions, the one with the fewest assumptions is likely to be the most sound. In popular thought it's often expressed as the simplest explanation is the best, though that's not quite what Occam inferred. 

**Forsyth penned The Day of the Jackal,  thought by many the classic Cold War spy novel.


Best and Worst of 2017


Few things delight me as much as music. Here are my Top Ten Albums. Live links will take you to the original review.

Top honors go to a band that simply knocked me off my feet.: I Draw Slow, an Irish ensemble that ended up being the best bluegrass band of the year. More proof that music is global. Beauty, grace, and surprises. Wonderful stuff.

 Numbers 2 through ten are listed two through ten are listed alphabetically by surname:

Debra Devi--a kick ass rock and rolling yoga teacher from New Jersey.
Hope Dunbar--A Lori McKenna goes to Nebraska-style slice of honesty.
Alaisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas--Scottish fiddle and cello go global.
Nikki Lane--full-throat, sassy antidote to little girl voices. 
Kate MacLeod--Celtic fiddle as inspired by the American West.
Peter, Paul and Mary--Their retrospective reminds us of more hopeful times.
Quiles and Cloud-- Where folk, bluegrass, jazz, and Americana picnic together.
Sleeping at Last--Can music heal? You're damn right it can.
The Waifs--An Aussie folk ensemble that blurs genres.

I shall refrain from naming the worst album of the year. Musical tastes simply differ too much, so my poison might be your ambrosia.


These Prince Edward Islanders are smart. witty, and talented.

A medical scare kept me in more than I wished this year, but let me give shout outs for several great performances:

My favorite was an April performance of Ten Strings and a Goatskin (pictured above) at the Iron Horse Music Club. It was a lively, accomplished, and exuberant display of Celtic music as filtered through the lens of joyful Prince Edward Island lads. My foot hasn't stopped tapping.

Other great performances included: Canadian chanteuse Rose Cousins (Iron Horse, February), the dazzling fretwork of Robbie Fulks (Parlor Room, September), Quebecois stalwarts Le Vent du Nord (Ottawa, June), the surprising energy of Irish squeeze box legend Mairtin O' Connor (February, Iron Hourse), the synergy of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch (Academy of Music, November), the bluesy brilliance of Chris Smither (Academy of Music, March), and the catch-a-rising-star flat-picking artistry of young Molly Tuttle (West Whately Chapel).

As for duds, a big set of horns for Dan Bern, who stunk up the Parlor Room in October with a sloppy, unprepared performance that he made worse by encouraging the drunks who were annoying everyone else.


It was an okay, but not great year for fiction and I didn't really have a favorite, though Ruth Ware gets consideration for In a Dark, Dark Wood, a dark, dark thriller. I mention this because her second book was putrid. I'd also give consideration to Paul Beatty and Christina Kline Baker. [See below.]

My vote for the best non-fiction book goes to Jeremy McCarter for Young Radicals, his look at what World War One and government repression did to youthful idealists. My close runner-up goes to my colleague Chris Appy for another unvarnished look at what the Vietnam War did to America in American Reckoning.

I enjoyed the short stories of Richard Russo in Trajectory; Jamie Ford's Love and Other Consolation Prizes; really admired Christina Baker Kline's take on Christina Olson in A Piece of the World and Alice Hoffman's prequel The Rules of Magic. Ian McGuire chilled and thrilled me with The North Water. Paulette Giles made me like Westerns anew in her quirky News of the World. Chris Bohjalian kept me up with The Sleepwalker.

Paul Beatty gave us a look-in-the-mirror look at racism in The Sellout, surely among the year's best. Kevin Canty wrote one of the better looks at blue-collar life in The Underworld. Who could not admire the human story and graceful prose of Amor Towles in A Gentleman in Moscow? Ian Rankin wrote a first-rate twisty mystery in Even Dogs in the Wild. I also really liked Beth Underdown's look at the English witchcraft hysteria in Witchfinder's Sister.

Boo hiss to Ruth Ware for the derivative, if-not-plagiarized The Woman in Cabin Ten. I wasn't very fond of Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben either, but at least he's an activist, not a novelist. Tom Perotta recycled too much in Mrs. Fletcher. Carl Hiaasen's Razor Girl was simply pop flash trash and I'm at a loss to understand why reviewers raved over the Elizabeth Strout's Anything is Possible or Ian McEwan's Nutshell.

If I had to pick one truly lousy book it would be Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, simply because she's too good of a writer for such a lame effort. I don't care how well praised this book was; it would have been savaged from anyone with a lesser reputation. 


My very favorite show of the year, I'm proud to say, took place the University of Massachusetts Amherst: a razor-sharp look at the political heft of graphic art and it didn't make any less proud that a former student co-curated the show. This show definitely needs to be picked up by other museums. The Kara Walker show there was also first rate.

As for the most fun, hands down it was the Hanna-Barbera cartoon art at Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum. I regressed by decades viewing it and danced with my Inner Child.

I adored Patty Yoder's quirky alphabet sheep in Hooked on Patty Yoder at Vermont's Shelburne Museum. Kudos to the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire for its fabulous exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec posters. The National Gallery of Canada has unveiled its new wing and one simply must see the Inuit art if anywhere in the region. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams also showed off its new wing and new exhibits. The venerable Clark Museum scored with a new look at Picasso.

I did not expect to be dazzled by the an exhibit of ocean liner art at the Peabody Essex Museum, yet I was. It also scored big with an exhibit of wearable art, an idea that surfaced first in New Zealand. The MFA in Boston had great shows of Botticelli and Matisse, which redeemed an otherwise lackluster year.

The not-so-coveted Art on Velvet Stinkeroo Art trophy goes to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for its trite display of Takashi Murakami, who's not an artist so much as a pop conman. Places like the MFA shouldn't try to be hip. Every time they do, their squareness shows.

MOVIES: Wait for Oscar time!

Rob Weir