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music friday: pussy riot

In February, members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot put on a brief, unauthorized concert at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Three of them were later arrested for “hooliganism”. Today they were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. The judge said the women had “crudely undermined social order” and shown a “complete lack of respect”.

Information on how to donate to their defense fund can be found here:

http://www.causes.com/causes/787323-free-pussy-riot-now-pussy-riot/actions/1666224


melky cabrera

I feel obliged to say something, and that right there is reason enough to be pissed off.

This is a personal reaction. I do not give two shits about the use of so-called performance “enhancing” drugs in baseball. I’m not pissed because Melky used testosterone, I’m pissed because he got caught. Cheating happens in baseball, and I’m not one to try very hard to extract moral lessons from the sport. What matters more than anything to me is that the Giants will have to play the rest of the season without Cabrera, not that Cabrera cheated.

My opinion about the efficacy of PEDs, specifically in the case of Melky Cabrera, is largely in agreement with Jack Dickey in this article (the full article details Dickey’s analysis, and I’ll leave it for you to click on the link so I don’t have to cut-and-paste everything Dickey wrote … I’ll just give the conclusions):

[A] closer examination of Cabrera's numbers suggests an alternate possibility: Performance-enhancing drugs haven't done much at all for his offense. …

This year's version of Melky is more or less last year's version of Melky, only with a different approach at the plate: more ground balls. And last year's Melky was more or less the same old Melky he had always been, just a little lighter on his feet. That transformation isn't outlandish for a player entering his prime, and it sure as hell isn't indicative of a player receiving a significant chemical boost.

One can question Dickey’s methods, and some commenters offer useful critiques. But you can also find in the comments a type of “analysis” that is meat-headed. A couple of examples: “Of course these things worked. Why else would so many players constantly keep taking them and risk everything.” And: “Players simply wouldn't take the risk if they didn't see a tangible benefit to what they're doing. What the hell would the point be?” My take on such arguments is much like another commenter who noted that “They believe there are benefits and there may be. But, how many athletes go around with those stupid ‘magic bracelets’ and other stupid hokum?”

Meanwhile, to my mind, Cabrera’s biggest offense is being stupid. Victor Conte, founder of BALCO and someone who knows a thing or two about PEDs, thinks “maybe as much as half of baseball” is using PEDs, adding “The only people that get caught are the dumb, and the dumber.”

This isn’t an attempt to excuse Cabrera because everyone else does it. Like I say, I don’t care who does it. I’m selfish … I only care about how it affects me, and that lies solely in Melky’s future absence from the Giants’ lineup.

What I tire of … and it goes without saying that a fan of the Giants and of Barry Bonds has had extensive opportunities to be tired … what I tire of is the endless attempt to turn this shit into an excuse for moralizing. Gaylord Perry goes to the Hall of Fame on a road greased with Vaseline and spit, and everyone thinks it’s cute. Players switch from glasses to contacts to laser surgery, and everyone congratulates them for taking advantage of advances in science. But drugs are treated as a moral issue. And I don’t care if you smoke weed, I don’t care if you’re a junkie, I don’t care if you are a drunk, unless you crash into my car driving while drunk or rob my house because you need money for a fix. And I don’t care if a baseball player does something outside of the rules to improve his performance. I think the player is stupid, I don’t think his performance is being improved as much as he believes, I don’t like it when a guy on my favorite team gets caught. But I don’t worry about the broken-hearted little kid who thought Melky Cabrera was a role model, I don’t worry about what Melky Cabrera says about American morality, I don’t care about anything except that the Giants are worse now than they were yesterday, and that I’ll have to listen to a bunch of pseudo-moralists whine about the decline of western civilization. I’ve been there before, and it was just as boring to me then as it will be now.


by request: jackie brown (quentin tarantino, 1997)

Tomás requested this one. A few years ago I wondered if Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s best film to date, and reminded myself to check it out again sometime. Sometime has arrived, and I still don’t have the answer to my question. Jackie Brown is a very good movie; thus far, Tarantino’s features have all been at least very good. His usual strengths are here: dialogue that is as good as any in contemporary film, a savvy appreciation for pop culture, an excellent ear for the right music for the soundtrack, and an ability to channel a hundred years of film history into a coherent whole. He is also excessive, which at times makes even his strengths a bit tiresome, and sometimes it feels like he knows more about people in movies than he does about people in real life. All of which is one way to explain why I’ve given every Tarantino movie I’ve seen at least 8/10, but have never given one 10/10.

For the most part, Tarantino avoids the showy time-jumping dazzle of Pulp Fiction, letting the story unfold in a fairly standard way. When he finally gives us multiple versions of the climax, it is pleasing in part because it is unique in the context of the movie, not just another example of how talented the director is.

Tarantino once again provides meaty roles for a variety of solid actors, including Sam Jackson, Bridget Fonda (who in one scene is watching her dad Peter on TV in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker, and Sid Haig. But the heart of the film lies in the performances of two grizzled veterans, Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Forster’s subtle underplaying won him an Oscar nomination.

But Jackie Brown is Pam Grier’s movie. Occasionally a director will place their spouse or lover into a movie and try to convince the rest of us that their beloved is the center of the universe. Quentin Tarantino’s love for Pam Grier isn’t romantic in a real-world sense. Instead, he loves Pam Grier the movie star, and in Jackie Brown, he gives her the perfect role, just right for her to shine, showing her range but never asking her to step outside of that range. The way he photographs her is somehow simultaneously lustful and respectful, never exploitative, and he (and she) refreshingly never hide the fact that this woman is in her 40s. (At one point, Forster’s character, a bail bondsman, guesses that Jackie looks the same as she did when she was 29. “Well, my ass ain’t the same,” she replies. “Bigger?” he asks. She answers in the affirmative. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!” Forster exclaims.) Rarely has a director done such a great job of letting us understand why they love the actor.

Even with all my praise, I wouldn’t say Jackie Brown is perfect. It’s too long, and while the dialogue is Tarantinoesque, I think it misses some of the Elmore Leonard feel (not everyone agrees with me). For that, I prefer Out of Sight (and the TV series Karen Sisco) or Justified. It’s hardly a complaint, though, to say that the dialogue is Essence of Quentin.

Is this the best Tarantino movie? I’d probably still vote for Pulp Fiction. But Jackie Brown is close. 9/10.


what i watched last week

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947). Fluff … good fluff, wordy in that Joe Mankiewicz way, with a score by Bernard Herrmann, but fluff just the same. I’ve enjoyed most of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz films I’ve seen, but only one (All About Eve) really knocked me out. Thus, I watch something like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir hoping for another All About Eve, and when it doesn’t deliver, my disappointment may lead me to underrate the film. This movie is just fine, although it’s not a classic. Rather surprisingly, it’s #680 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1,000 greatest films. 7/10.

Sonatine (Takeski Kitano, 1993). This is a pretty interesting yakuza movie with an odd arc, in that it starts with action, and ends with action, but the majority of the film is taken up with a long section devoted to the lives of idle gangsters hiding out at a beach house. They take showers in the rain, devise all sorts of goofy games to pass the time, even trotting out a Frisbee at one point (first, they just play catch like any old hippie, but soon enough, they are using the Frisbee like a clay pigeon, trying to shoot it out of the sky). The violence, when it happens, is like in a Scorsese movie: it pops up, almost unexpected, and is over before you know it. The last big shootout is done in an artsy manner where we hear the sound of machine guns, but all we see is the flashing of the guns in the windows of the house where the shooting takes place. Sonatine is not an easy movie to categorize (I haven’t even said anything about the slapstick sand trap jokes), and I admit I have no idea what the title means. But this, my first Takeshi Kitano movie, is quite intriguing. #954 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000). 8/10.


music friday: koo nimo

I can’t claim any expert knowledge about Koo Nimo. I was trying to come up with something for this week’s music post, and saw mention of Koo Nimo on Christgau’s “Expert Witness” column. What caught my eye was a song called “See Wo Nom Me [Tsetse Fly You Suck My Blood]”. How could I deny a song about a blood-sucking tsetse fly? I tried to find that song on YouTube and failed (although I did find it on Spotify), but there are plenty of Koo Nimo videos to choose from.

Koo Nimo is 77 years old and has led an interesting life, to say the least (here is his Wikipedia page). Check out this performance, and if you like it, pick up one or more of his albums:


by request: you can count on me (kenneth lonergan, 2000)

Jeff Pike requested this one (you can read his thoughts on the movie here). Lonergan’s most recent film, Margaret, just turned up in the mail from Netflix, so this seemed like a good time to check out his debut as a director. Lonergan is a prize-winning writer, but his screenwriting credits don’t impress me: Analyze This (didn’t like it), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (didn’t see it), Gangs of New York (not a big fan). Luckily, You Can Count on Me is a much better film. It’s an honest look at a brother and sister in their early-30s, never simplistic, with good dialogue and excellent performances from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.

I think focusing on the siblings makes a big difference. You don’t have to worry about the usual will-they-won’t-they romantic angle (there is romance in the film, but it is not between the two leads), which creates a different dynamic than a typical rom-com. I don’t know that You Can Count on Me is universal, but it approaches that standard: family, jobs, relationships, parenting, religion, it’s all here. There is no real resolution, and that’s a good thing. It would be unfair, even dishonest, to these characters to pretend everything could be cleaned up at the end of the movie.

Plus, it’s nice to see the future Bruce Banner become an “overnight sensation” at the age of 33. #67 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 21st century’s most acclaimed films. 8/10.


what i watched last week

Snow on Tha Bluff (Damon Russell, 2011). Intriguing “real-life” look at thug life in Atlanta. The film is largely non-judgmental, which is a plus … we’re left to make our own decisions about the events that occur. The cinéma vérité style, along with the framing of the movie to make it appear to be a documentary, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny any more than it did in The Blair Witch Project, although Snow on Tha Bluff never tries all that hard to convince us we’re seeing what “really” happened. Instead, they show us what really happened by fictionalizing, using documentary techniques, and since the result is an almost anthropological study of gang life, you want to give the film makers credit for finding their way inside the material. But the absence of a guiding narrative, and the (proper) refusal to judge, means Snow on The Bluff just sits there, relying on the great screen presence of Curtis Snow. Which is something, but it’s not as good as a slicker production like Menace II Society. 6/10.

Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004). Koreeda, whose Still Walking is a favorite of mine, once again offers up a melodramatic setting and then refuses to sensationalize the material. There are scenes here to match any weeper, but the tugs at our heartstrings never bludgeon us. Koreeda allows us to come to the melodrama on our own terms. Yûya Yagira in the lead role is stunning. He was 13-14 years old at the time, and this was his first movie, which makes it all the more remarkable that he picked up the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Nobody Knows is long, and it’s low-key, but it isn’t boring, and the attention to detail pays off as the story progresses and you wait for a happy ending that may not be forthcoming. #216 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films. 8/10.

(What I Didn’t Watch: Dances with Wolves. I didn’t look forward to this three-hour movie that I’d managed to avoid all these years. When I realized the Blu-ray I rented had the four-hour extended version, I put it back in the Netflix envelope, unseen.)


memoirs in reverse

I stuffed all of the movie reviews on my blog into Microsoft Word, and learned that all of them together fill 226 pages, i.e. long enough for a book.

I don’t trust my vision of myself. I need to be validated by the opinions of others. There are plenty of artificial intelligence programs that analyze our taste preferences and tell us what else we might like. What I would like is a program that read those 226 pages and then produced a one-paragraph summary, perhaps for my Wikipedia page, explaining my theory of film. I don’t think I have one, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

Since the motto of this blog explains that in writing reviews, I am writing my memoirs, then it should follow that if someone could explain my theory of film based on those reviews, they would also be explaining, well, me.