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November 2011
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January 2012

last post of 2011: kindle fire thoughts

Was just reading something about the Kindle Fire, and thought I’d end 2011 with a few thoughts, a couple of months into my Fire experience.

It won’t take long, actually. Here’s the simplest review imaginable:

$199.

Honestly, quit worrying about what it doesn’t do. Quit expecting it to do as many things as the tablets that cost two or three times as much. Yes, it’s a portal to spending money at Amazon. No, it doesn’t have a camera or GPS.

But I use my Fire everyday to read books and magazines, watch movies and television, play games, read email, check Facebook and Twitter, look stuff up on Wikipedia, check the weather, and see how my various sports teams are doing.

For $199.

When the inevitable Kindle Fire 2.0 comes along, with a larger screen and a more open architecture and a higher price tag, I’ll think about upgrading. All that matters for now is that I have a machine that does all of the above-listed items, for $199.

Did I mention it cost $199?

Have a happy New Year!


what i watched last year

A summary, sorted by my ratings. There are a lot of films with my highest 10/10 rating, due to my participation in the Facebook Fave Fifty group where I watched and ranked my fifty favorite movies (the films in that list are in bold, below). I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Thus, the average for the 125 movies I rated in 2011 (not including the Facebook movies) is 7.3/10.

10:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The Big Sleep
Bonnie and Clyde
Breathless
Cabaret
Citizen Kane

City of God
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Do the Right Thing
The Earrings of Madame de ...
Fires on the Plain
From Here to Eternity
The Godfather
The Godfather Part II
A Hard Day's Night

His Girl Friday

Hoop Dreams
In the Mood for Love
King Kong
Kiss Me Deadly
(“The detective hero doesn’t bring order from chaos, but instead blunders his way into atomic apocalypse.”)
L'Avventura
The Lives of Others
The Maltese Falcon
Mean Streets
Night and Fog
The Night of the Hunter
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Paths of Glory
(“Can the man who created such perfection as Paths of Glory really be the same person who gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut?”)
Performance
The Rapture
Rio Bravo
The Rules of the Game
Run Lola Run
Sherlock Jr.
(“Must have been at or near the top of Jackie Chan’s viewing schedule in his formative years.”)
Singin' in the Rain
The Sorrow and the Pity
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Taxi Driver
The Terminator
The Third Man
Top Hat
Touch of Evil
Vertigo
Walkabout
(“One of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director.”
"What's Opera, Doc?"
The Wild Bunch

9:

13 Assassins
A Better Tomorrow

Army of Shadows
Before Sunset
Close-Up
From Russia with Love
Gimme Shelter
Hunger
Inside Job

My Family
My Man Godfrey
Near Dark
Shoot the Piano Player
Sid and Nancy
The Times of Harvey Milk
Under Fire
The White Ribbon
Welfare

8:

Animal Kingdom
Another Year
Attack the Block
Being There
Capote
A Christmas Tale
Crumb
Dumbo
Evil Dead II
The Heart of the Game
Incendies
The Informer
Inglourious Basterds
Juno
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Let the Right One In
Mildred Pierce

Minority Report
Police Story 3: Super Cop
The Red Balloon
Restrepo
Smoke
The Social Network
Still Walking

Stones in Exile
Straight Time
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Super 8
To Be or Not to Be
Vengeance
The Virgin Suicides

7:

127 Hours
The Big Lebowski
Biutiful
Black Swan
Blow-Up
Broadcast News
A Bucket of Blood
Buster Keaton Rides Again
Catfish
Cedar Rapids
Down from the Mountain
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Fighter
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
I Am Love
In a Better World
In the Realm of the Senses
Inception
Keane
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
The King's Speech
La Strada
Little Sinner
Lost in America
Magic Trip
The Magician
The Man from Laramie
Margin Call

Moneyball
Morocco
My Fair Lady
Nights of Cabiria
The Other Guys
Outside the Law
Page Eight
Point Break
A Serious Man
Shadows
Source Code
Summer Wars
They Live
The Thin Red Line
Thunderball
Tomorrow Never Dies
The Town
A Woman Under the Influence

6:

Another Woman
Barney’s Version
Bridesmaids
The Cat Returns
The Conspirator
Country Strong
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Doctor Zhivago
Drones
Eraserhead
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Grace of My Heart
Heart Like a Wheel
The Heartbreak Kid
Il Posto
Imitation of Life
It Came from Outer Space
Marathon Man
On the Town
The Producers
The Railrodder
Rango
Red
A Star Is Born

Tucker and Dale vs Evil
Velvet Goldmine
Wagon Master
Waiting for "Superman"
Whistling in Brooklyn

5:

Synecdoche, New York
The Tree of Life

4:

Eyes Wide Shut
The Terror

3:

Bride of the Monster


#19: mean streets (martin scorsese, 1973)

(This is the 32nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays a character who struggles to express himself (at least until the final explosion). The bottled-up tenseness of Travis Bickle gives Harvey Keitel as Sport, the pimp, space to be playful. Keitel jives and wiggles and pours on the shtick, and in the scenes between him and De Niro, you see two styles competing with and complementing each other simultaneously.

In Mean Streets, Keitel and De Niro occupy the other side: Keitel’s Charlie is stiff, De Niro’s Johnny Boy is expansively crazy. Throughout the movie, various characters ask Charlie why he maintains a friendship with the punk Johnny, and a possible reason is hinted at when we learn that Johnny Boy once took a beating from some cops to allow Charlie to escape. But that’s not the real reason Charlie is drawn to Johnny. Charlie is self-aware, and he knows what he gives up in order to be the good boy who rises the mob ladder. Johnny Boy does everything Charlie wants to do but can’t. Near the end, when things have gone to hell, Johnny Boy tells Charlie, “You got what you wanted.” It’s hard to imagine, since Charlie is facing an untenable position, but Johnny Boy is the one who creates the instability Charlie needs deep down inside himself.

Mean Streets is a cheap movie (the budget was around $500,000), and it shows. Continuity is a mess, with scenes switching from night to day at random, and the soundtrack (about which more in a bit) sounds like old records being played on a turntable with a bad needle (much of the music actually came from Scorsese’s collection of LPs). But Mean Streets is cheap the way the early French New Wave films were cheap: there wasn’t any money, so they made do with what they had. Scorsese and cinematographer Kent Wakeford give the film a specific look that works perfectly.

Mean Streets is very Scorsese-like; you could argue that this is where his style, as something identifiable, first erupted, although it was not his first film. The use of violence as something almost random, that sparks when the audience is least expecting it, is one example. And then there is the soundtrack, from back when Scorsese still made brilliant musical choices in his films. Right from the start, when “Be My Baby” runs behind the opening credits (one of the great rock and roll openings in movie history), Scorsese shows as much personal understanding for music as he does for the Little Italy milieu. I’m fond of telling people that Mean Streets is the best rock and roll movie ever, even though it isn’t one by most people’s standards (it’s not The Last Waltz or Woodstock), because it shows how the music is part of the characters’ essence.

 

The comments included several people who agreed that the use of music in Mean Streets is excellent, along with some discussion of Who’s That Knocking at My Door as the first film in the “Scorsese Style”.


music friday: not a year-end wrap-up

It has been years since I had the knowledge to compile a best-of list for the year’s music. It’s not just getting old … Christgau doesn’t have any trouble, and he’ll be 70 next year. No, the bigger culprit is the one that lots of people theorize about: when you have access to every song ever recorded, this or that particular song gets lost in the shuffle play. The only musical act I obsessed about this year was Wild Flag, partly because they and their album are good, partly because I saw them in concert again. Beyond that? I listen to and like all sorts of music from 2011, but since I’m listening to music from at least 8 decades, the latest from The Roots doesn’t have the same impact it would have in the past.

This doesn’t bother me. I am not pining nostalgically for that time in the past when each and every album was given proper attention. I listen to more good music in a day now than I did in a month back then.

Still, I’m not immune. When I was a kid, I had a handful of singles and even fewer albums. I relied on the radio and my brother’s record collection to fill in the gaps. Those few albums, though, imprinted themselves on my brain, since I played them over and over again. Here are some I can remember.

File:The Yardbirds - For Your Love.jpg

Most of the tracks on this U.S.-only album (their first to be released here, it’s a compilation) feature Eric Clapton on guitar. Not that I knew this at the time … Clapton’s name does not appear anywhere, and that’s Jeff Beck’s picture on the upper-right. One of the three Beck tunes was Mose Allison’s “I’m Not Talking”:

Herman's hermits on tour

This album actually had a Yardbirds cover on it (“For Your Love”). Eleven songs remarkably coming in at under 26 minutes (take that, Ramones). (And if you don’t believe Herman was Joey Ramone’s fave singer, check this video out.) (Although I don’t suppose the Ramones ever did a 5 1/2 minute version of “Blitzkrieg Bop”.)

I guess I should classy up the joint a bit:

Bringing it all back home


#20: city of god (fernando meirelles and kátia lund, 2002)

(This is the 31st of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

This one’s a lesson in the value of projects like ours. Some years ago, a friend recommended this to me, but I didn’t get around to it until several years later. My friend was right; this is a great movie. So as you read our lists, remember that some of the ones you haven’t seen might turn out to be one of your favorites, too.

It’s a relatively non-judgmental film. It doesn’t spend much time beating you over the head with a moral, so if you look to pop culture for such things, you’ll probably think of City of God as amoral and too excited by its subject matter (young gangs in the favelas of Rio). It’s not that City of God is a straightforward representation of life in the Brazilian slums, any more than Mean Streets is a straightforward representation of life in Little Italy. There are too many showy stylistic maneuvers to call it “straightforward.” But it feels honest (not that I have the slightest idea of what life is really like in places like the City of God). I don’t think it glorifies the gangsters … it’s dazzling, but usually in depressing ways, and from my comfortable middle-class American perspective, at least, I can hardly imagine anyone seeing City of God and thinking “cool, I want to be like these kids.”

The film doesn’t offer much in the way of easy explanations or hopefulness, and that’s a problem for some. It is influenced by many earlier films, some of which have been commented on, in particular Goodfellas (this is like a kid’s Brazilian version of that movie). I was reminded of The Harder They Come, and Season Four of The Wire, which also deals with slum kids. But the real connection I saw was between this movie and Menace II Society, in particular the character of O-Dog, played by Larenz Tate, in the latter. I don’t know if I’d ever seen a movie character that so effectively combined amoral psychopathic behavior with charisma. But the character Li’l Dice (later Li’l Ze) in City of God makes O-Dog look like a wussy. When the 11–year-old Dice commits his first murder (and his second, and third, and on and on as he wipes out most of a sex hotel), the glee in his crazy laughter is scary as shit.

Some have argued that there is no “point” to the film, that it merely turns violence into spectacle. It’s not that I disagree, but that scene (and a few others) say more about the casual worthlessness of life in the favelas than any “point” the film makers could make.

 

There were only a couple of comments for this one, with one person noting the beautiful cinematography.


xmas then and now

This xmas, one of my siblings got the idea to do one of those “let’s duplicate the past” pictures. I always like seeing those, so I knew from the start I’d have to post it here. My brother David fiddled around with the photo a bit, with the following result:

xmas then and now 2011

Funny how we’ve all changed, yet Santa looks exactly the same.


gardening

A little over nine months ago, a friend of ours died. He was only in his 40s, and his death was unexpected. He grew up on our block, and could tell us stories about who had lived in our house back in the day, and what kinds of shrubbery and such was in the front yard.

This was a guy who had more than his share of struggles over the years, but he smiled as much as anyone I ever knew. People noted this at his funeral … one after another, old friends and family would talk about how they could count on him to lend a hand, any time, any place, and how he’d do it with as much good cheer as he could muster.

He knew a lot of stuff. He would come down and ask me about just about anything, because he thought since I was a doctor, I must know everything, but the truth was, he knew about way more things than I do. And, unlike me, he knew practical things. He started off doing basic yard work for us a long time ago, and since we were grateful for his work, we’d tell him to be as creative as he wanted, so he always had projects going, especially in our backyard. Some of them were goofy, but they always had creativity, and plenty of them worked just fine.

Meanwhile, like I say, he knew how to do everything. Once he rented a jackhammer and tore up some concrete for us … later, he’d use the broken up stones for decorative purposes in the garden. Earlier this year, an old fence rotted away. He and I and Robin went down to the hardware store and bought some green wire fencing that would blend in with the greenery and make a good place for berry vines to grow. He installed the fence for us … don’t worry, he said, I’ve put in more fences than I can remember, and sure enough, that fence was in before two hours had elapsed.

Since his passing came as a surprise, and since he always had several projects cooking (oh yeah, he was a pretty good cook, too), when he died, there were many half-done Winchester-Mystery-House-like aspects to the yards, front and back. We had the front lawn mowed a time or two, but mostly, we couldn’t bear to even look at the backyard, and we did all we could to avert our eyes when we crossed the front yard. Things started to look pretty ugly … he would have hated it, and would have had it looking better in a day, but he was gone … and somehow, I think we believed fixing things up would finalize the loss of our friend, and we weren’t ready for that. Stupid, to be sure … like I say, the best way to honor him would have been to keep things up, but it was too depressing.

Well, after nine months, we finally had someone come out today. A team of three guys spent a little more than six hours clearing out both front and back yards, and they will now come by twice a month for maintenance. And it’s a relief, as if we can finally say goodbye.

This crew is “green” … seems funny that there are gardeners who aren’t green, but they exist (“mow and blow” is the term for them, I think). They did a lot of the clearing on their hands and knees, pulling stuff out manually. They were thorough, and things really are a lot better. But the best part is, they’ve left the quirky parts. We may decide in the spring to start afresh, but for now, the backyard still looks like our friend has been there. The vegetable garden he had started this year was still in place … a couple of exotic-looking bushes are still growing in the center of the yard … there’s a mix-and-match feel to everything. Robin got home when it was dark, and hasn’t seen it yet, but I think she’ll be very happy.

Here’s a photo I posted back in March:

And here’s another I haven’t posted before:

rob 2007


what i watched last week

Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010). You know, I loved American Splendor, in which Paul Giamatti played a curmudgeon, but this one mostly left me cold. I found Harvey Pekar fascinating in Splendor, but Barney in Version is more like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, another one I didn’t care for. Barney is a jerk, but somehow we’re supposed to find him lovable. I didn’t, despite Giamatti’s solid performance. Rosamund Pike is strong, as well, but other than that, 6/10.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954). Watched it for the billionth time as this week’s Saturday Night Creature Feature. It’s fun to watch the 3D effects on a 2D screen, and I always like seeing Whit Bissell. Richard Carlson makes his second appearance in the short, three-week history of the Saturday Night Creature Features, and is as earnest as ever. Julie Adams is a real looker. Everyone my age has fond memories of this one, but I admit this time I was noticing that even though it only runs 79 minutes, it has boring stretches. So I’m going to lower its rating one notch from where I previously had it. 6/10.


#21: night and fog (alain resnais, 1955)

(This is the 30th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

This is probably the most specific example yet of how I’m cheating in my choices. It is hard to imagine anyone calling Night and Fog a “favorite” movie. Truffaut famously said it was the greatest film ever made, which I suppose is the point: this is not my 21st-favorite movie, but rather a movie I consider to be among the greatest ever made. And I’ve stated several times that the closer I get to the top, the farther away I get from more personal/favorite choices (we’re a long way from Near Dark). As I look at the 20 films still to come on my list, I see 19 that are traditionally thought of by some as “classics” and only one that is more of a personal favorite. I can’t help myself; when I hear “favorite” I am inexorably drawn to “best.”

The film was made a mere ten years after the end of the war. The discussion over what the Holocaust “meant” was still in its initial period. Eichmann hadn’t been captured … films that have tried to define the Holocaust, like Schindler’s List or Shoah, were in the distant future. Night and Fog met with some resistance. An old still photograph that showed a French policeman watching a roundup of Jews was not allowed until Resnais changed the photo to obscure the cap which identified the policeman’s nationality. West German officials tried to have the film removed from the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s ultimate greatness overwhelmed the controversies.

Philip Lopate says that Night and Fog is not a documentary, but an essay, and I think he’s half-right … the movie is both. It is stark and it is poetic. Many of the people who worked on the film found it extremely difficult to make. Resnais struggled during the editing process, saying “I had scruples, knowing that making the film more beautiful would make it more moving.” It is one of the film’s many paradoxes, that beauty within the setting of the film would seem problematic.

Night and Fog is about memory, as are many Resnais films. The current-to-1955 camera takes long shots in color of the camps as they looked after the fact, with the overgrown grass and general ordinariness. He uses the aging black-and-white photographs and footage to mark the past from the present, gradually showing how the ordinary became the unthinkable. The narration reminds us that the gap between past and present makes our memories unreliable, even though something like the Holocaust demands that we remember, that we never forget:

And who does know anything? Is it in vain that we in our turn try to remember? What remains of the reality of these camps -- despised by those who made them, incomprehensible to those who suffered here? ... No description, no picture can restore their true dimension: endless, uninterrupted fear.

 

Comments were limited to “I saw that once, good pick”.