Book Review: ‘EPITAPH’

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The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been dramatized in numerous books, on stage, on screen, and in one particularly far-fetched episode of “Star Trek .” In “Epitaph,” Mary Doria Russell revisits the iconic shootout, delving into its dramatic back story and aftermath. With vast amounts of research and a poetic prose line, she puts the hard kernel of the gunfight’s violence at the center of a setting as wide and complicated as the young United States itself.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially given that the battle, which erupted just up the street from the O.K. Corral, in the Arizona territory town of Tombstone on Oct. 26, 1881, lasted a mere 30 seconds. The result of a long-standing feud between a group of five “Cow Boys” (Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Clairborne, and Tom and Frank McLaury) and a group of Tombstone lawmen (town marshal Virgil Earp, assistant town marshal Morgan Earp, and their deputies, Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday), the shooting happened in a quick fusillade, with the two sides standing a mere six feet apart. In instants, Morgan and Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded, and Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were dead.

On the surface, it’s just one in the long list of such gun battles that made the Wild West so dangerous for settlers — and irresistible for TV producers (as fans of HBO’s “Deadwood” will recall, Morgan and Wyatt Earp made an appearance in that great show), but hardly the stuff of epic. And yet, Russell has crafted an epic tale out of it just the same. She sets the event within the broader context of the times — creating a sweeping canvas that touches on subjects as disparate as the politics of President Chester A. Arthur and life in the Jewish quarter of San Francisco. It’s a stunning performance, richer in depth than Larry McMurtry’s version in “The Last Kind Words Saloon” (2014) and much broader in scope than Loren D. Estleman’s brilliant 1987 novel “Bloody Season.”

In fact, “Epitaph” most closely resembles McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” in its moral core and sheer plenitude of character. Russell lavishes detailed attention on every member of her huge cast. There’s Wyatt Earp’s unofficial “wife,” Josie Marcus, who fights to keep her lover’s reputation pure, and John Clum, the hapless editor of the Epitaph, the local newspaperman who eventually prefers not to live in a town where “the gravediggers were more prosperous than the newspaper owners,” and Tombstone Sheriff Johnny Behan, described by Doc Holliday as “that presumptuous, third-rate, overdressed Irish bigot.”

But inevitably, everything comes back to the Earps and Doc Holliday. (The latter so indelibly brought to life in Russell’s luminously good 2011 novel “Doc.”) Russell portrays the men as battered knights errant, friends and good men in a venal, dishonorable world. Everything about Holliday, she writes, “seemed slightly askew. His smile, his posture, his demeanor.” Brothers Virgil and Morgan are formidable but friendly; Wyatt is something more elemental, a brooding figure capable of producing “a look so hard it felt like a shove.” When the infamous gunfight breaks out, Wyatt is an invulnerable tower: “Still standing, taking careful aim, like a man shooting at beer bottles or tin cans. Each shot separate. Bang. Bang. Bang.”

And in the shooting’s aftermath, when the town’s nefarious Cow Boys rally and first grievously wound Virgil and then kill Morgan, Russell gives her novel a black final act, the so-called Earp Vendetta Ride, in which Morgan Earp’s killers are hunted down by Wyatt, who is at last freed from a lifetime of controlling his rage. “The long struggle for control was over,” Russell writes. “He was bred to this anger. It had been in him since the cradle.” Pursued by a posse composed of the very Cow Boys who shot his brothers, Wyatt Earp the lawman dispenses with the law: “He wasn’t going to sit in court and listen to their smirking friends lie under oath. Oh, he was with me in Contention that night. We was playing cards, Your Honor, so he couldn’t have shot Morgan Earp.” The whole section is so bleakly Jacobean that it demands to be read in one tense sitting.

Russell follows the Earps and Doc Holliday to the end of their stories, and by the time a character, contemplating a dying Wyatt, asks, “What happens when the old lion leaves us?” we’re asking it, too.


A Novel of the O.K. Corral

By Mary Doria Russell

Ecco. 581 pp. $27.99

ACM Awards 2015

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Miranda Lambert won four awards, including album and song of the year, but the singer lost the night’s top prize to Luke Bryan at Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

It was a repeat of the Country Music Association Awards in November, where Lambert won multiple prizes but lost the big award to Bryan.

“Listen guys, what an amazing night of music,” an excited Bryan said onstage after winning the fan-voted award. “Thank you to my wife, my kids . . . my fans, country radio.”

Lambert was the sole female nominated for entertainer of the year; other nominees included Garth Brooks, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line, who won two awards Sunday at the AT&T Stadium.

Though she lost the top prize – again – Lambert was the queen of the night. She was on a red-hot winning streak – and she even rocked a red-hot bustier when she performed “Little Red Wagon.”

Lambert won her fourth album of the year, her sixth female vocalist of the year and twice for third single record of the year (she won twice this year as a performer and songwriter of “Automatic.”)

“I don’t even realize what’s happening tonight,” Lambert said. “I love my job so much. I will never not love my job.”

Lambert, a fashion favorite in the last year, wowed again in a flowing, plunging dress on the red carpet. Inside the venue, she wore white pants and a white top with a black sheer center. She also accepted the 50th Anniversary Milestone Award, given to her by Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara (Lambert wrote a song for their new film, “Hot Pursuit.”)

It was also a memorable night for Taylor Swift, who made it a family affair.

The singer was one of seven recipients of the 50th Anniversary Milestone Award, and a video package highlighting her career and success played before her mother, who recently announced she is battling cancer, presented her daughter with the award.

“I am a very proud mom,” said Andrea Swift, who also called her daughter “brave enough to explore her musical curiosity.”

“I am so happy I learned how to write songs in a town like Nashville,” said Swift, who released her first full-blown pop album, “1989,” last year.

The former country singer, who sat next to her father Scott Swift, danced along in typical form, especially when Lambert and Martina McBride performed.

Other recipients of the anniversary honor include Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney and George Strait, who performed near the beginning of the show.

The ACMs kicked off paying tribute to veteran Merle Haggard by Keith Urban and Eric Church, while Strait sang “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” – appropriate for the awards show celebrating its 50th anniversary in a new location, the Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

Shelton and Bryan were playful as hosts – and they even played some football. Shelton asked Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to throw the ball to Bryan, who was wearing gloves.

“This isn’t one of those deflated balls?” Shelton said after Bryan caught the ball, referencing the deflategate scandal earlier this year.

Shelton announced that the – usually held in Las Vegas – set a Guinness World Record for most attended live awards show of all-time.

Shelton and Bryan performed, too. Christina Aguilera joined Rascal Flatts and Nick Jonas sang with the country duo the Swon Brothers.

Brooks’ performance of “All American Kind” marked a sentimental moment since it included U.S soldiers standing proudly.

“I’d like . . . to thank all of our men and women in the armed forces . . . protecting our freedom,” Brooks said when he received the Milestone Award from Taya Kyle, the wife of the late “American Sniper” Chris Kyle.

Lee Brice sang some of “Forever and Ever, Amen” and then called out Randy Travis, who was sitting in the audience and earned a rousing applause. Brice won single record of the year for “I Don’t Dance,” which he also produced.

“This is insane. Thank y’all so much,” he said.

Little Big Town had one of the night’s top performances when they slowed things down with their recent hit, the semi-controversial “Girl Crush.” They won vocal group of the year, and Cole Swindell won new artist of the year.

Dierks Bentley, who had seven nominations, won video of the year for “Drunk on a Plane”; Aldean won male vocalist of the year.

Other performers included Brooks & Dunn, Braid Paisley and Alan Jackson.

Movie Review: ‘Ex Machina’

To most speculative fiction fans, Alex Garland is best known as the novelist behind “The Beach” and the screenwriter behind “28 Days Later” and “Never Let Me Go.” With “Ex Machina,” Garland makes an impressive debut as a director, spinning an unsettling futuristic thriller with the expertise and exquisite taste of a seasoned veteran.

Among Garland’s virtues is an impeccable sense of how to get a story moving: Within the first few minutes of “Ex Machina,” we’ve met Caleb, an eager young computer programmer played by Domhnall Gleeson, and observed his overjoyed reaction at winning a week-long stay at the secluded estate of his legendary boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Traveling by private helicopter over acres of lush forests and waterfalls, he asks the pilot when they’ll get to Nathan’s property, only to be informed they’ve been flying over it for the past two hours.

Nathan, who invented a Google-like search engine called Blue Book, lives like a New Age mad mountain king, ensconced in a pristine modernist aerie set into the rock face of a hillside. Anyone would be dazzled, and Caleb is doubly thrilled when he learns why he’s been summoned: Out of hundreds of Blue Book employees, he has been chosen to conduct a “Turing test,” in which he is tasked with matching wits with an artificial intelligence machine Nathan has constructed, in order to judge whether it possesses genuine human consciousness.

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Of course, the Turing test is also known by another name. But if Nathan had asked Caleb, “Have you heard of the ‘imitation game’?” that would have invited an unwelcome digression about last year’s Academy Awards race. Garland effectively erases any and all memories of the Alan Turing biopic, instead calling on references as wide-ranging as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” to create an absorbing, often disquieting contemporary parable. It complicates matters at first only somewhat — but then a whole lot — that Nathan’s A.I. comes in the form of a pretty animatronic woman named Ava. Played by the Danish actress Alicia Vikander with sensitivity and precise, balletic movements, this metal-limbed beauty blurs the lines between artifice and authentic emotion in ways that will ultimately do a number on both Caleb and her charismatic, manipulative inventor.

Filmed in a spectacular private home and neighboring eco-hotel in Norway, “Ex Machina” has been handsomely designed, the leafy, green natural environment coexisting in Zenlike balance with the glass, steel and blue-glowing neon of Nathan’s lair and laboratory. His head shaved and sporting a generous beard, Isaac embodies his cerebral-hipster alpha male with a carefully calibrated mixture of warmth and menace: One minute he’s bro-ing down with Caleb, the next he’s an inebriated, belligerent bully. (And in one delightfully surreal sequence, he’s giving “Saturday Night Fever”-era John Travolta a run for his money on the dance floor.)

As the audience’s proxy, Gleeson brings just the right amount of naivete and openness to a character who becomes so unsure of what’s real that he resorts to extreme methods. There are more than a few dollops of body horror in “Ex Machina,” which winds up veering into pop revenge pulp. But even at its bloodiest, the film succeeds at ratcheting up the mood of quiet unease, provocatively engaging everything from intimacy, identity and agency to such hot-button issues as corporate surveillance, sexual orientation and male privilege. The fact that so many questions can be addressed by way of a tautly constructed triad — and that each of the three principals is such a clearly delineated, vivid character in his or her own right — is a testament to Garland’s original concept, the lucidity of his execution and to the superb actors who bring it to such chillingly convincing life. “Ex Machina” is a smart, exceptionally stylish head trip.

★ ★ ★½

R. Contains graphic nudity, profanity, sexual references and some violence. 110 minutes.

Movie Review: ‘The Wrecking Crew’

Nostalgia trips are fun, but when they intersect with genius, virtuosity and genuine revelatory insight, they take viewers to a higher place. “The Wrecking Crew,” Denny Tedesco’s engrossing documentary about a legendary collection of Los Angeles session musicians, may ostensibly pay homage to individuals otherwise lost to history — including the filmmaker’s own father, Tommy, one of the Wrecking Crew’s most revered members. But it also raises potent questions about discipline, professionalism, authorial signature and the euphoria of being in the right place at the right time, with the chops to ride out a perfect, if fleeting, pop cultural wave.

“The Wrecking Crew” begins with the group’s most famous recording session: Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys album that galvanized the musical world when it came out in 1966. Although Wilson’s bandmates came in late to lay down their vocal tracks, it was very much Wilson’s own conceptual work, executed to perfection by the Wreckers — anonymous yeoman (and yeowoman) musicians who trained during the 1940s and 1950s and honed their craft playing television themes and movie scores, jingles and incidental music. “They were the ones,” Wilson recalls, “with all the spirit and know-how.”

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Working with a roster of talent ranging from Wilson and Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector to Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra and Sonny and Cher, the Wrecking Crew provided the riffs, licks and spontaneous flourishes that became the iconic sounds of a generation. What’s more, they were often the real, uncredited instrumentalists on other groups’ records — not just marketing gimmicks like the Monkees and the Patridge Family, but such respected bands as the Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel.

Tedesco includes lots of terrific vintage studio footage, as well as later interviews with the stars they worked with and Wreckers who became stars, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. Like such films as “20 Feet From Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “The Wrecking Crew” succeeds as important cultural history. But it’s also deeply personal for Tedesco, who explores how the demanding job of being L.A.’s No. 1 session cats affected not just his father’s personal life, but the lives of such colleagues as Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye.

Legend has it that the Wrecking Crew got its name because when they came on the scene, some old-guard cats thought they’d ruin the music business. Far from it. But the business might have ruined them: The era of the singer-songwriter — as well as the advent of synthesizers, drum machines and sampling — eventually put the Wreckers virtually out of business. But as songwriter Jimmy Webb notes, they represented a singular, momentary bubble — and while it floated, there was magic in it.

★ ★ ★

PG. Contains brief profanity, thematic elements and smoking. 101 minutes.

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