by request: survivor (james mcteigue, 2015)

We watch movies for a variety of reasons. My wife enjoys a classic as much as the next person, but she is also a knitter, and it often works well for her to have a standard TV show or movie running while she knits. She doesn’t always look up at the screen, so dialogue-heavy things are useful, and a sense of familiarity also helps, since she might not be giving her full attention.

And so we browsed through Netflix and decided to watch Survivor. It was only a day ago, and I’ve already forgotten why. Maybe it was the brief descriptive text: “He’s the world’s deadliest assassin and his next target ... is her. The cat-and-mouse game is on. The object: survival.” Maybe it was the cast: Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan were the stars, both usually reliable, and the supporting actors included Dylan McDermott, Robert Forster, Roger Rees in his last movie, James D’Arcy, and Angela Bassett. Since I wasn’t knitting, my expectations were pretty low ... the very things that make it a good movie for a knitter might be negative for someone actually paying attention. But it’s nice to watch a movie together, and Outlander wouldn’t be on for a few hours.

All of the above should be kept in mind, because if I was grading this on the “Knitting Scale”, I might be kinder. But Survivor is formulaic, dumb, and uninteresting in general, which didn’t quite work for me. You can see some problems in advance. The cast was fairly impressive, a B+ group. I don’t know how much they got paid, but Jovovich, star of the Resident Evil franchise, surely makes more than chump change, and while he’s not getting paid 007 money here, Brosnan was paid around $40 million for his James Bond movies. (On the other hand, Angela Bassett was “only” paid $250k for her Oscar-nominated turn in What’s Love Got to Do With It.) Basically I’m inventing figures out of thin air, but the amount of money spent on the cast for Survivor was surely more than what the actors in Sharknado were paid. Well, the budget for Survivor was $20 million, which is a lot of money, but not so much for an international thriller with some big names in the cast.

My point is that even if they spent all $20 million on non-cast items, Survivor wasn’t exactly The Bourne Identity in the budget department.

Which shouldn’t matter. I watch movies all the time with budgets far lower than $20 million that are fine films. McTeigue has made a few interesting, relatively inexpensive movies in the past, such as his debut, V for Vendetta. (He also directed a couple of episodes of Sense8.)

But for a movie like this to work, everything needs to be tight, the suspense needs to drive the film, you should feel that everyone behind the production was fully invested in what we see on the screen. And that’s just not true. Oh, the actors don’t mail it in ... Jovovich is always good when she’s running around, and Brosnan has some fun playing a bad guy. But there is nothing to make anyone care about the characters, and the action does indeed look like most of the budget went to the stars ... it is a cheap-looking movie, on the level of a TV show. And there are no quirks that show some inventiveness from the film makers. Survivor is by-the-numbers, and the numbers aren’t that interesting, anyway.

If you are a knitter looking for something to take up 96 minutes of your time while you work, by all means, check out Survivor. For the rest of us, 4/10.

music friday: bruce springsteen, "sherry darling", the river

I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s recent concert that we attended in Oakland, part of his “River Tour”, wherein he plays the entire River album in order. There is a lot of talk these days about how fragmented our listening habits have become. We don’t listen to albums anymore, we just hit shuffle play and let the software choose from a million different songs. Maybe you have a favorite artist ... say, in my case, Bruce Springsteen ... and you have a playlist consisting solely and entirely of every song Bruce has ever recorded. I’ll listen to that playlist, but when I do, I’ll use shuffle play. The result? Let me do an experiment, I’ll shuffle that playlist and see what comes up.

There are close to 500 songs on the playlist. For this particular shuffle play, we start off with “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, a favorite track of mine from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Next comes “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), one of the outtakes that ended up on Tracks. Then the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, from the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert in 2009, with Bruce joined by John Fogerty.

That’s followed up with the “Detroit Medley” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. Finally, closing out the first five songs is “Blood Brothers”, recorded in 1995.

You get at least a glimpse of what makes Bruce “Bruce”. Cover versions of 60s rock classics, an acoustic track, and two lesser-known tunes. Nothing from his most famous albums, nothing that’s one of his hits. But all of it is recognizably Bruce Springsteen.

The artist is the only thing that brings this disparate material together. Those five songs do not resemble an “album”, or even an EP. An album has its own coherence. At least, that’s how it used to be. It might still be true, but the audience doesn’t necessarily treat it as such.

What I thought while listening to the Oakland show was that Bruce was forcing us to return, not just to 1980, but to a time when an album was an album. He has played many River songs in concert over the years ... to use one example, at the show I saw most recently before Oakland 2016, he sang “Hungry Heart” and “The Ties That Bind”, separated by several other songs, of course. This tour, though, we got it all, track by track, in order. Just like we were listening to the album.

Well, if we were listening to the album with 35+ years on us. Clarence and Danny are gone, Jake and Charles and Nils and Soozie (and sometimes Patti) are with us. The crush of nostalgia lies heavily over the concert, to be sure. But as an experience in hearing an album, it was different.

“Sherry Darling” had an interesting history. In the old days, Bruce was always tossing a few new songs into his shows. At the famous Winterland concerts in 1978, he played “Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank”, even though he was touring behind Darkness and The River was two years away. So we knew those songs before they ever turned up on an album. “Sherry” was another of those songs ... while he didn’t play it for us, he trotted it out enough times that we heard bootleg concert versions.

When The River was released, I was wary. Darkness on the Edge of Town was indeed dark, and in fact that fit well with my personal experiences of the time. But I also knew that my favorite parts of his concerts were the joyous ones. “The Ties That Bind” was the first track on The River, and it was good, but I feared the darkness was returning. So when “Sherry Darling” was the next track, with its goofy lyrics and pseudo-crowd noises, I was so happy I could cry.

You’ll note from the above video that in 1978, Bruce wanted the crowd to make noise (“fraternity rock”), but he couldn’t expect anyone to sing along, since the song had never been released. In 2016, though, it is expected that we will know the words, and we will sing them:

We are hearing the song in the context of the original album. But we can’t replace the newness of those first times we heard those songs in 1980. Bruce approximates the experience of listening to an album, but nothing more. And there’s the added fact that some of the most noteworthy performances on this tour have been non-River songs, like his tributes to Bowie and Prince, “Rebel Rebel” and “Purple Rain”.