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season finales: outlander and masters of sex

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer … Outlander only finished the first half of its first season, moving now into a longish break, as is more and more common.

There are times when someone writes a piece that is so much in line with my own thinking that I don’t know why I’d bother to add my two cents worth. Other times, it’s not so much my agreement with an essay that matters (although it doesn’t hurt) as the fact that someone has said what a lot of people are thinking, or are on the verge of thinking, and said it in such an elegant and interesting way that their piece immediately becomes the first place to look when approaching a topic.

And so, yesterday, the great Maureen Ryan wrote “'Outlander,' The Wedding Episode And TV's Sexual Revolution”. It’s an instant classic, one that inspires not mere comments but links, as if the link itself will take you into a better place than reading my blathering. In short, read Mo’s piece before you read what follows, because that is the important thing here.

I had a few things to say about the first several episodes of Outlander, but (and this is not a knock on the show itself) once Ryan posted her piece, she became the focus of my thoughts. I’ll jump ahead to her conclusion, but don’t assume you’ve learned everything by simply reading this quote … in fact, if you haven’t already, go back and read her essay right now.

"Outlander" is not for everyone, and that's fine. But it's among the shows doing something revolutionary in their depiction of how adults relate to each other, in bed and out of it. A few decades after the actual sexual revolution, they're revolutionizing how female sexuality is depicted -- even honored -- on TV. By being conscious of women's desires, these shows make it clear that they are conscious of women's humanity.

I admit that I came at Outlander with some skepticism. To say it is not my type of show is an understatement … my wife started watching the pilot episode without me because she assumed I had no interest in it. Again, Mo Ryan: “It is an adventure tale, and that might be one reason for the people who don't watch it to dismiss it. More reasons some critics and viewers might shove it aside: It's on Starz; it's based on a book that women like; oh no, someone said the word ‘romance’ (that last one may be the dopiest reason of all).” The single reason I was interested in checking the show out was that Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame is the showrunner. (Hell, I made it through an entire season of Helix because Moore’s name was attached to the project, even though his participation is limited.)

It is a good thing that Outlander has little in common with BSG, other than the always-welcomed music of Bear McCreary. It is pointless to compare the two series. Those who have read the Outlander books seem convinced that Moore is treating the source material with respect (which was also pretty much true for Battlestar). I can say that it has been easier to stick with Outlander than it was to do the same for Helix, although the latter is more “my kind of show”. I am not sure why that is, which is one reason among many that I found Ryan’s treatise so fascinating. In explaining some of the ways Outlander is revolutionary, she brings to the forefront aspects of the show I knew subconsciously but hadn’t thought about specifically. That is one of the best ways criticism illuminates.

I know that the kind of female hero I most enjoy is, well, like Starbuck on BSG: a woman who is as good as any man at being a man. Claire on Outlander is plucky … she thinks well on her feet, uses brain over brawn, and in general is a better role model than Starbuck if you care about that stuff. There is violence on the show, but it is not a show about violence. It was startling to see, for one episode, warnings not only about language and violence and nudity but also “rape”. But when the rape attempt occurred, there was never any point of view other than the woman’s … it was shown in contrast to the sexuality between people Ryan describes above, not as part of a continuum.

If this means men won’t want to watch, well, they need to reconsider. As Moore says (in an interview Ryan cites in her piece), “I read the book, I loved the book … When my wife and producing partner gave me the book, they weren't like, 'Oh, here’s a romance novel. See what you can do with it.' They said, 'Here’s a really good book.' I don't see any reason why men won't watch this show.”

Outlander isn’t perfect, at least not yet. The middle episodes tended to drag, some characters are more fun to watch than others, and to my ear, at least, the Scottish accents are at times indecipherable. But it’s a fine start, in the B+/A- range.

And what about Masters of Sex? I mention it mostly because Season Two just ended, and because it was mentioned briefly in Mo’s essay. Masters of Sex rises and falls with its portrayal of Masters and Johnson, which puts a lot of pressure on Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. I’ve liked them both over the years … Caplan is a particular favorite. Scenes between the two actors are always good, and the one episode that basically just put the two of them in a hotel room (“Fight”) was the best of the season. The other characters don’t tend to be nearly as interesting as the leads, though, and I’m not sure showrunner Michelle Ashford knows which of those characters are the most fun. (She’s working with a story line that “really happened”, which informs some of her choices, and she has reasons for structuring things as she does.) I’d love to see more of Annaleigh Ashford’s Betty, but I admit I don’t know how they can work her in without being entirely awkward about it … she does get more screen time than most of her cast mates. Ultimately, Masters of Sex is a lot like Outlander: it’s a pretty good show, it might get even better, its best episodes are as good as you’ll find, but overall, it’s not great yet. Grade for Season Two: A-.

blu-ray series #17: sans soleil (chris marker, 1983)

It is a sign of how different Sans Soleil is from a typical documentary that the IMDB page lists twelve “memorable quotes”. This is especially interesting because there is no dialogue in the movie, only narration. And while the image is the most important part of the film, the narration is carefully written and also crucial.

It is as hard to pin down the theme of Sans Soleil as it is to place it narrowly within a single film genre. I wanted to talk to my wife for a bit about the film and its interestingly tricky methodology, but before I could get to that, she asked the obvious question, “what’s it about?” And that’s not easy to answer. I finally said it was about memory, a philosophical rumination on memory, as expressed in the quote from the film, “We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” I suppose I was reasonably close to the truth in my statement, but I’m not overconfident about it. And a bare statement like “it’s about memory” says nothing about the levels that exist here.

There is the structure of the film. It begins with a woman’s voiceover (Marker wrote separate narrations for the French and English versions … I watched the English version), and soon we are in a type of travelogue, with the woman reading from letters written by … well, it’s not exactly clear. Much of the film takes place in Tokyo, but there is also Africa, and San Francisco. The photography isn’t what you’d expect from a travelogue … the images are juxtaposed in thought-provoking ways, and the narration sometimes supplements what you see and other times seems to be at a remove from the image. There are a lot of ruminations about memories (“whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories”). In the San Francisco segment, the photographer revisits locations from Vertigo. He drives down the streets Jimmy Stewart once traversed … they look the same, but the cars are more modern. He goes to Mission Dolores and Mission San Juan Bautista, to Old Fort Point. He even goes to where Kim Novak’s apartment was … now it’s a concrete structure. As he visits these places, he duplicates Scotty’s story in Vertigo. There, Scotty tries to remake the present to match with his memory of the past; here, the photographer tries to match the present to his memory of the past in Vertigo.

These kinds of threads are not easy to follow. I normally reject the idea that a movie needs to be seen more than once, but in this case, I think Sans Soleil would benefit from that second viewing, especially in light of what I learned after the film was over. The credits tells us that the cameraman, who apparently wrote the letters which are read in the narration, was a Hungarian named Sandor Krasna. The odd music in the movie comes from Michel Krasna. The special effects are by Japanese video artist Hayao Yamaneko. Marker himself is the filmmaker, not the director.

Except … Marker wrote the narration and shot the footage … there is no “Sandor Krasna”. Nor does Krasna have a brother named Michel … the music is also by Marker. Hayao Yamaneko? Yep, also Chris Marker. Marker submerges himself under pseudonyms, and distances himself from the final product by having women read the narration he has written (in the name of “Sandor Krasna”). I don’t think Marker is trying to trick us. On the other hand, I admit I’m not sure exactly why he hides. It really would help to see it again, knowing this time that it’s all Marker.

Sans Soleil is one of those movies where a rating is particularly useless. I’m pretty sure the second time I see it, I’ll raise the rating. For now, 8/10. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. The most obvious candidates for a double-bill with this one are Marker’s masterpiece, La Jetée, or Vertigo. Another interesting possibility is Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which is also quite complex in its recreation of reality.

(Note: the Blu-ray also includes a six-minute film from Marker, Junkopia, that to be honest isn't much. But folks from the San Francisco Bay Area will want to see it, because it consists of footage of the Emeryville Mud Flats sculptures, which no longer exist.)

music friday: favorites through the years

If I were to make a list of my favorite musicians over the years, the only easy selection would be Bruce Springsteen at the top. But I wonder if perhaps I could offer a chronology of favorites over the years.

One of my first memories (meaning it is entirely untrustworthy) is being a little boy and having to get a shot at the doctor’s office. I cried and ran around the room until my dad promised I could buy an Elvis Presley 45 after we left the office. My memory is it was “Hound Dog”, although that is probably the most untrustworthy part of this whole story. Since I’m trying to concoct a chronological list of favorites, I can’t really use this memory to place Elvis in first place. I didn’t have an Elvis fixation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was merely the only rock and roller I’d heard of at that young age. I lost interest in him after that, and only really started paying attention to him after Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train. That book took me to the ‘68 TV special, and if you want a favorite, there you are … whenever I fill out one of those “if you could pick one moment in time, where would it be” memes, I choose to be sitting in the audience as The King and his friends played in the summer of 1968. From there, I went on to write my college honors thesis on Elvis, and I’ve never lost my fascination with him. Truthfully, though, it’s the ‘68 Elvis-and-Friends sessions that affect me emotionally … everything else for me is more academic. So Elvis is a favorite, to be sure, but it’s hard to place him chronologically … 1968, when I didn’t notice him? The mid-70s, when Mystery Train came out?

I had a few 45s when I was a kid … there was Bobby “Boris” Pickett with “The Monster Mash”, Link Wray and “Jack the Ripper”, a few more that are long forgotten. The first LPs I can recall (some gifts, some bought by me) include Herman’s Hermits On Tour, Bringing It All Back Home (for “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first Dylan to grab my attention … of course, that album did not include “Rolling Stone”), and the first two American Yardbirds albums, For Your Love and Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. It would be accurate to say that The Yardbirds were my first “favorite” musicians. I put “favorite” in quotes because The Beatles ruled over everything by then, and I was not immune. (I can remember buying Revolver right when it came out, and someone asking me how I knew it was good before I’d even heard it. “It’s the Beatles!” was my reply.) Finally, to complete this time frame, I had an older brother who lived at home until 1964, and his tastes were very influential on me, plus he had lots of records.

The Yardbirds, “I Wish You Would” (Eric Clapton on guitar)

For the rest of the 60s, my favorites were identified more by albums than by artists, although the Beatles and Rolling Stones were always there. Representing the “San Francisco Sound” were Surrealistic Pillow, Children of the Future, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, and the first Quicksilver album. Oh, and the Firesign Theatre. But I don’t think any of these artists were favorites beyond their best albums. If I had to list a favorite, let it be Jack Casady. One album, though, made such an impression on me that it lifted the artist to a favored spot: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. His first four solo albums (through His Band and the Street Choir) were often played, and there was plenty to like after that. I finally saw him live in 1998.

Van Morrison, “Cypress Avenue

Not sure I had a favorite for the next few years. Listened to a lot of The Moody Blues in the late-60s. Allman Brothers. Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime”. No, the next My Favorite came when I re-discovered Bob Dylan around about the time of Planet Waves. I had liked him since long before that, of course, and The Band was always thisclose to being a favorite … in hindsight, I don’t know if there is a double whammy I love more than Big Pink and the second album. Robin and I saw them on the Before the Flood tour, our first concert together after we were married … we saw Dylan twice more over the years, The Band once more (they were/are a favorite of hers, as well). I buried myself in Dylanology, reading everything I could find, going back to the earlier albums. Then Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes followed … it was a great time to be a Dylan fan. Things went downhill after that … we saw him on the Street Legal tour, and it wasn’t the same … we didn’t see him in concert again for 20 years. It’s hard to get mid-70s Dylan on YouTube (The Band is easy to find), so here’s what I (along, I’m sure) consider the best use ever of “All Along the Watchtower”, the culmination of its use in Battlestar Galactica:

BSG, Starbuck

Then came Bruce … do I really need to say more? My various stories are scattered throughout this blog. My favorite of his songs after all these years is still “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, and it was 1978 that cemented his place forever in my heart. So here’s “Rosie” from 1978:

Bruce Springsteen, “Rosalita

Punk was probably the musical movement I most loved. Patti Smith could be on this list. But my true favorites were The Clash … it’s really not even close.

The Clash, “Safe European Home

Lou Reed is in there, too … we saw him quite a few times then. The Velvet Underground belongs on this list, but as with Elvis, I don’t know where to place them. We listened to the first album all the time when it came out, and I was aware of the other albums. But it took a long time for me to realize that they were my favorite band, by which point they had long since broken up. The real favorites of the … what do I call it, post-punk era? College rock? Anyway, the favorites were Hüsker Dü. I would vote for the Velvets over the Hüskers overall, but in the context of this post, Hüsker Dü is the right choice. And my favorite of their songs is an easy choice. “So now sit around staring at the walls. We don't do anything at all. Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize

Predating Hüsker Dü by a bit (and thus throwing off the chronology a bit, but I wanted Hüsker Dü in with the punks) was their fellow Minnesotan, Prince. He would be the frontrunner if I decided I had to pick a #2 favorite. Seeing him in a small club in 1981 ranks as one of the finest concert moments of my life. For most of the 80s, he was crucial, and he has never really gone away … saw him in concert just a few years ago.

Prince, “Uptown

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the above are all guys. I’ve loved many women rockers over the years, going back at least as far as Aretha in the 60s. I mentioned Patti Smith earlier … and there’s Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and more. But they weren’t my favorites the same way acts like Bruce and Prince were.

And then came Sleater-Kinney. I saw them for the first time in 1998, after Janet had joined the band and Dig Me Out was their most recent album. The first S-K song I can remember loving was “Good Things” from the second album, but Dig Me Out was and remains iconic for me, especially “Words + Guitar” and even more especially “One More Hour”. I don’t think I knew right away how much I would love them. It had been more than a decade since I truly obsessed over a new act … I was 45 years old in 1998, I had Bruce, I didn’t need more. But there was something about Sleater-Kinney. Their concerts were very interesting … I want to tell you what a great live act they were, but the truth is, I could barely distinguish a lot of the noise (Janet’s drums always came through, though). It’s the way they formed a real group out of three women with distinct personalities on stage. In the earlier years, Corin tended to be relatively calm, letting her colossal vocals do the work of expanding her presence to the audience. Janet was simply the best rock drummer since Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Carrie took care of the rock star charisma, and she had it in abundance, her bangs always in her eyes, her energy at once coiled and explosive. On record, Corin’s voice got my attention, and I had a fan’s crush on Janet’s drumming. But the fact was, I could barely take my eyes off of Carrie. They made seven albums, and all of them were good (sample: Christgau gave the albums grades of A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A). I made an S-K playlist for a friend … I ended up including more than 40 songs. The last album, The Woods, was arguably their best, as they released their inner Blue Cheer. And the concerts rolled on … over the course of just under eight years, I saw them 12 times. There was the time they played “Promised Land” on Bruce’s birthday, the many times they would man their own merch tables and I’d get tongue-tied in the presence of Janet.

And then they went on “hiatus” … that was in 2006, and I just about cry every time I think of it. By that point, I was 53 years old, and this time I was sure of it, I would never love another new act the way I loved Sleater-Kinney. “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played together … “i know it's hard for you to let it go, i know it's hard for you to say goodbye, i know you need a little more time”.

Sleater-Kinney, “One More Hour

Another woman has snuck in, though … I don’t obsess over her the way I did with Sleater-Kinney, those days are indeed probably gone. But I’ve seen her five times (the second at the Fillmore, two years after I’d seen S-K there) … she’s just about the only person left not named Bruce who can get my now-61-year-old ass to a show. Pink.

Pink, “So What

So, there’s my slightly botched timeline of my favorite musicians over the years:

  • The Yardbirds
  • Van Morrison
  • Bob Dylan
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • The Clash
  • Hüsker Dü
  • Prince
  • Sleater-Kinney
  • Pink

by request: summer of sam (spike lee, 1999)

Like so many of Spike Lee’s movies, Summer of Sam is simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic. At one level, he’s telling the story of his beloved New York City, and if you were to extend NYC to mean “America,” I don’t think he’d object. On another level, though, this is the story of the boroughs … everything seems very local, every one in a particular neighborhood knows every one else, and the general perspective of the residents is very closed. This ignites one of the key disputes in the film, when Adrien Brody’s Richie becomes a punk rocker, which to his disco-loving Italian buddies means he might as well be from Mars.

Lee writes what he knows here, and his feel for the neighborhoods seems comfortably accurate. It is probably important that his co-writers are Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, both Italian-Americans … the characters feel real, and Lee has shown some good work in this area in the past, so whoever gets the credit, the ambiance is effective.

Of course, the film takes place during the time when serial killer Son of Sam is terrorizing New York City. This places the characters within a very specific time and place. Lee doesn’t have much, if anything, to say about David Berkowitz … the Son of Sam is used only to amplify the heat of the moment, creating a special environment that allows normally submerged emotions to rise to the surface. Thus, Richie’s status as a punk might have been seen as a goofy phase by his buddies, but in the cauldron of paranoia that exists during the summer of Sam, difference is highlighted in a dangerous way, and Richie is scapegoated.

There is plenty of good acting … Lee generally does well at casting. John Leguizamo, born in Colombia and generally thought of as Latino, shines in the lead role. Brody was born and raised in Queens, but with Polish and Hungarian ancestry. Mira Sorvino is a Jersey girl with a famous Italian-American father, and Jennifer Esposito is of Italian descent. I mention this because Lee and the actors seamlessly portray the New York Italians, with rarely a false note between them. (The supporting cast also includes such stalwarts as Patti LuPone and Ben Gazzara.)

The point I am trying to make is that Spike Lee has earned our trust, here and throughout his career, that he can offer realistic portraits of varying aspects of American life. (His two documentaries on New Orleans, for instance, are among his best work.) And his ability to create believable neighborhoods populated by characters who are deeper than mere stereotypes makes his best films engrossing in wonderful ways.

But …

Someone needed to sit Lee down and explain punk rock to him. Specifically, New York punk in 1977. Because while Lee is careful to give us geographies and cultures that are accurate in their way, he fails completely with punk. It comes across as if he didn’t care enough to get it right … Richie wears a series of spiked mohawks that mark him as Other, and his otherness is used as a plot device, but that’s as deep as the punk feel gets in the movie. To choose the most obvious example, no punk in 1977, New York, London, anywhere, would admit to loving the Who and “Baba O’Riley”, even if they secretly did love it. It’s a great song, and it works well for the montage sequence that Lee uses it for. But it shows the entire portrayal of Richie to be a sham.

And if Lee doesn’t care enough about the details of one the most crucial characters in the plot, and about the subculture that is used in the film in direct contrast to the dominant Italian-American culture, then it is hard to take his representation of New York in 1977 seriously.

It’s a tribute to Lee at his best that for the most part, he pulls it off nonetheless. And his movies are often ambitious enough to get a feel of biting off more than you can chew, which is a flaw except it’s part of what makes Lee’s films almost epic. 7/10. The obvious companion piece is Do the Right Thing, or maybe 25th Hour. For comparison purposes, my two favorite films from 1999 are probably Boys Don’t Cry and Three Kings; easily my least-favorite is Julien Donkey-Boy.

blu-ray series #16: eyes without a face (georges franju, 1960)

Since I don’t know who the audience is for this blog, I don’t know how much I have to say to provide context. Say nothing, and some people will be left behind. Say too much, and I’ve bored the readers. In this case, I’ll err on the side of saying too much.

Georges Franju was a Frenchman who, with Henri Langlois, started the Cinémathèque Française in 1936. It held (and holds) one of largest archives of films and film-related material in the world. Their post-war screenings were attended by many of the future stars of the French New Wave. Franju went on to make documentary films before moving on to fiction films, of which Eyes Without a Face was the second.

By the time this film made it to the U.S., it was treated like a typical drive-in horror flick. A couple of scenes were edited, the title was changed to the ridiculous The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (there is no chamber or Dr. Faustus in the movie), the French dialogue was dubbed into English, and it was stuck on a double-bill with the immortal movie The Manster (HALF MAN, HALF MONSTER!). I don’t remember The Manster, but I seem to recall seeing The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus on Creature Features when I was a kid. That I am not sure of this last face suggests the movie didn’t make much of an impression, if I did see it.

Which brings us to Eyes Without a Face. The concept isn’t completely original … scientist’s daughter has her face disfigured, scientist tries to graft a new face onto the old one … at some basic level, I suppose it is a horror film, although the buildup is so slow I’m not surprised I can’t remember if I saw it. There are a couple of faded stars to tart things up … Pierre Brasseur, who was in Children of Paradise in 1945, plays the scientist, while Alida Valli, the female lead in The Third Man in 1949, plays his assistant. In fairness, Valli had been in plenty of movies of note in the 1950s.) The scientist and his assistant kill young women, looking for a match for the disfigured daughter, and again, this isn’t exactly a new idea in horror.

So why is Eyes Without a Face considered a classic? Partly, it’s the perfectly controlled way Franju gradually lets the audience into the scenario. At first, the scientist seems like a somewhat arrogant man who is still mourning the loss of family members. But as the film progresses, we realize that the doctor will stop at nothing to achieve his aim of fixing his daughter’s face, even after she expresses her desire to just die. Ultimately, he is uninterested in his daughter. He only wants to create a new method of grafting. Thus, the film is a commentary on patriarchy, where women are mere symbols for what men want to accomplish. It’s also a warning about placing too much importance on reason … the rational scientist never seems to understand what he is doing to his daughter, or why she would want it to end.

But what really lifts the film is Edith Scob, who plays the daughter. Scob is aided by the mask she wears to cover her mangled face … it makes it hard for the actress to emote, and more props to her for using her eyes and her body to express emotions. But it’s the actual look of the mask that will haunt you long after you’ve seen the film.


I’m not sure she’s even wearing a mask … in an interview included on the disc, she talks about sitting in makeup for long periods. There are times when the mask is taken off or put back on, but that could be camera trickery. Whatever … what matters is that the mask simultaneously looks like a mask (i.e. “fake”) and like a real face. It’s exquisitely done … her face looks oddly flawless.

Franju happily, consciously, messes with our notions of the possibilities of art in genre work (which might have been more vital in 1960, I suppose). Eyes Without a Face is an ambitious film. It’s better than the average horror film, there’s a lot going on, there is plenty of interesting subtext. All of which, to be honest, makes me enjoy thinking about it more than I enjoyed actually watching it. #338 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. For a companion piece, try something by Cocteau, maybe Testament of Orpheus. Or John Woo’s Face/Off.

what i watched last week

The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014). In writing about The Raid: Redemption (The Raid 2 is its sequel), I said that “Gareth Evans deserves credit for just ignoring everything except action”. I appreciated the general lack of character development, which admittedly limited the film’s ability to excel across boundaries, but which also resulted in a streamlined production that was all “good stuff”. The Raid 2 is 48 minutes longer than the first film, and sure enough, Evans uses some of that extra time to delve a bit more into his characters. He also moves from the claustrophobic setting of the first film to a more expansive, even epic take of gangland intrigue. It’s not all that interesting, and I found it incomprehensible a lot of the time, so the first half of the movie doesn’t thrill the way its predecessor did. There are a couple of very good set pieces that keep our attention, but I admit to being a bit disappointed. But the last 45 minutes to an hour made up for lost time. The latter part of The Raid 2 surpassed even The Raid: Redemption, once again leaving me breathless, mouth agape, at the astounding action. Just listing the scenes brings back intense memories. Star Iko Uwais, who is also the fight choreographer, is a bit bland when doing straight drama, but once he gets into fight mode, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Yayan Ruhian, who was the co-choreographer for the fight scenes, gets one extended sequence of his own that is impressive. And no one who sees this movie will ever forget Julie Estelle as “Hammer Girl”. The Raid 2 is both worse and better than the original, worse because of the extra, unnecessary scenes, better because Evans, Uwais, and company somehow manage to top the spectacular Redemption. So I’ll give it the same 8/10 rating. Once again I’ll note that if you don’t like on-screen violence, avoid this movie at all costs.

Executioners (Siu-Tung Ching and Johnnie To, 1993). 6/10.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, 2013). 8/10.

the honourable woman

The Honourable Woman (they spelled it that, so I’ll follow suit) is a BBC/Sundance co-production starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a philanthropist dedicated to developing better communications between Israelis and Palestinians by laying cables in the West Bank. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that usually confuses me … I’m pretty bad about keeping track of the zillion plot shenanigans, especially when the episodes are a week apart. Midway through the seventh of the eight episodes, I hit pause and asked my wife if she understood what was going on, she being better than I at such things. She wasn’t quite sure, although she had a better handle on it than I did, and she assumed it would all make sense by the end of the series. Before I hit play, I let her know that I didn’t think I’d understand, even after the series ran its course.

And that’s pretty much the case. I got the basics, but the plot is full of unpredictable twists. Every character has a secret or six, and no one can be trusted … even the trustworthy people can’t be trusted because when you can’t trust anyone, you don’t know that one person is actually OK. I’m not convinced every plot thread was completed … in fact, I can think of at least one that seemed important for about two minutes and was never spoken of again.

So you don’t go into something like this expecting a by-the-numbers, coherent narrative, and perhaps that’s why people like these things. Sometimes it’s fun to break free of the NCIS school of storytelling, and to just bounce all over the place hoping something works.

It’s important with a project like The Honourable Woman to get top actors, because good acting can carry the audience a long way. I may not have always known what was going on, but I liked watching what I didn’t know. Gyllenhaal carries the show, and if her English accent was shaky, I didn’t know … I’m just a dumb American. It was nice that despite her many travails, her character usually managed to hold it together … I like Carrie from Homeland as much as the next person, but it gets tiring when every female lead has emotional problems (see Kruger, Diane on The Bridge). Also worth mentioning: Lubna Azabal (so good in Incendies), Janet McTeer, Eve Best. Yigal Naor was as comforting a figure as anyone could be in a story like this. I’d give special mention to Stephen Rea, as a retiring British spy. Usually when a character is described as “rumpled”, you picture a shabby overcoat like the one Columbo used to wear, and Rea does indeed dress like that. But the hangdog expressions on his face, and even the tired efforts when he speaks, could also be described as “rumpled”. He seems like the one person who actually wants to know the truth.

The Honourable Woman is a candidate for binge-watching … I suspect it would be easier to follow seen in that fashion. I liked it well enough, but if there’s a sequel, I don’t know if I’d jump to watch it. Grade for series: B.

music friday: claudine clark, "party lights"

Despite my Pauline Kael obsession, the biggest influences on me in terms of criticism were the first wave of rock critics. I learned about the art of criticism from Dave Marsh and Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs and, most of all, Greil Marcus. Their work informed my own, even when I moved into academia.

Over the years, things blend together. I don’t always remember specifics … at 61, I find myself hoping I’m just getting old and not turning senile. I knew about “Party Lights” first because I read about it. It hit #5 on the charts in 1962, and you might think I was unaware of most pop music then (I turned 9 in June of ‘62). But I remember many of the songs from that year: “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Telstar”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, “Duke of Earl”, “Green Onions”, “He’s a Rebel”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Johnny Angel”, “The Locomotion”, “Norman”, “Palisades Park”, “Sherry”, “Soldier Boy”, “Town Without Pity”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, “Walk Right In”. And when I say I remember them, I don’t mean if you played those songs now, I’d know what they were. I mean that I can remember hearing them in 1962.

But I don’t remember “Party Lights”. I’m not sure how it got my attention … actually, thanks to the great new website devoted to Greil Marcus, I probably can identify the moment “Party Lights” came to my attention. In the 1979 version of Rolling Stone’s history of rock and roll, Marcus wrote an essay on Girl Groups. (The Marcus website informs me that the piece originated in the Village Voice in 1975, but I wouldn’t have read it then.) Here is what Marcus wrote about “Party Lights”:

There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine—she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party—house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist… the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter; she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”

I disagree with Marcus that it’s all about the first five seconds … Clark maintains her fever for the entire length of the song. What is wonderful, what is thrilling, what is astonishing to this day is how much emotion Clark puts into the simple desire to go to a party. In her singing, she expresses the anguish of every teenager prevented from doing that one thing which is more important than ANYTHING IN THE WORLD, because your mom said you couldn’t. There is the specific dismay of missing the party … there is the universal nature of her teenage lament … it’s not going too far to say Clark turns that missed party into an existential statement about lost opportunities.

And sure, it’s “just a silly pop song”, but the way Clark sings it, “just” and “silly” are completely off.

by request: fruitvale station (ryan coogler, 2013)

Movies that are “based on a true story” always take full advantage of the word “based” in order to excuse the changes that turn up in the film. Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed Fruitvale Station, is no exception. While this is his first feature, he’s an excellent choice in this case, since he grew up in the Bay Area. Just simple things like knowing how to present the BART system ring true to those of us in the audience who are also from the Bay Area. The film is recognizable to us, and this goes a long way towards getting us to accept the “true story” part that lies underneath the “based”.

Coogler is at his best when he relies on the true story. He gets terrific performances from his actors, and as noted, the setting is believable. The near-documentary feel is generally convincing, and Coogler’s decision to present the day Oscar Grant was murdered as if it were just another day is effective. Coogler relies on our knowledge of the story’s ending … well, he begins with real cell-phone footage to establish that ending, but then he flashes back approximately 24 hours and for most of the film gives us an often mundane view of Grant’s day. This is an interesting move … it seems to remove the film from any explicit political statement. It’s as if nothing in that day had an effect on how the day ended.

What Coogler is offering is a character study of Oscar Grant within a documentary-like presentation of the shooting at the station, wrapped up in an emotional appeal to the audience. When Grant is shot, it isn’t a case of white cop/black male, it’s just a chaotic situation that goes tragically wrong. Yes, the BART cops in the movie are overly aggressive, and Coogler doesn’t excuse them. But the look on the faces of the cops after the shot is fired tells us that these men are instantly appalled at what they know was their own behavior.

So Coogler wants to convince us that he has created an honest portrayal of that day. Oscar Grant is not perfect … he cheats on his girlfriend, lies to people in general, is hot-headed. The cops abuse their authority, but not in a premeditated way. What happened to Grant is terrible, not because he was a saint or because the cops were evil, but because the death of a 22-year-old man in these circumstances is always terrible. Thus, the film doesn’t end with the shooting … instead, Coogler takes us to the hospital so we can see the effect on family and friends.

I just wish that Coogler had trusted his audience more. Instead, the changes he makes, the things that turns Fruitvale Station into something “based” on a true story, are insulting to the viewer, as if we didn’t understand the kind of person Oscar Grant was unless Coogler invented some supporting material. When Grant dumps a bag of weed into the bay rather than sell it, we understand that Coogler wants to ensure that we know Grant was trying to turn a corner in his life, but the truth is, our reaction is similar to that of his girlfriend, who chastises him for ditching a source of income when he doesn’t have a job. Oscar’s encounters with a white woman at a market, and a white man on the street, are among the best scenes in the film, but they are too obvious. Look, Oscar helps out the clueless white lady! Look, the white guy bonds with Oscar and offers his help! Better to just show the diversity of Oakland by having a few white people hanging out with Oscar and his crew, than to hit us over the head with an anvil.

Worst of all is when Oscar befriends a stray dog, which is immediately killed by a hit-and-run driver. It’s a rule of thumb: whenever a filmmaker brings out the dog, something obvious will follow. It destroys the realistic mood Coogler is striving for, when he drags that damned dog into the picture.

Fruitvale Station is a success, a remarkable one considering it is Coogler’s first feature. It presents a different take on an important event in recent history. It gives us a wonderful lead performance by Michael B. Jordan (it’s odd how many reviews treated this as a breakout performance … anyone who watched TV over the past decade already knew Jordan from The Wire and Friday Night Lights). It’s the kind of film that won’t be seen by enough people, so those of us who see it will want to push it onto those who haven’t, with good reasons. On those terms, I’m perhaps being a bit too picky when I complain that Fruitvale Station could have been better. 8/10.

by request: executioners (siu-tung ching and johnnie to, 1993)

My friend Steve in Hong Kong suggested I check out this sequel to The Heroic Trio, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. He noted that the upcoming handover to the Chinese, which was a big part of HK genre films before 1997, is especially present in this movie.

Executioners takes place some years after Heroic Trio. There has been a nuclear explosion, everything is irradiated, and the water supply is contaminated. A black market arises for clean water … some combination of corporation and crime organization, led by an unrecognizable Anthony Wong, controls the water. Society is in chaos, nothing works … it’s a nightmare vision of the near future. And the heroic trio? Anita Mui (Wonder Woman) has become a dutiful wife and mother. Michelle Yeoh  (Invisible Girl) works for positive change. Maggie Cheung (Thief Catcher) is out to make a buck. Mui is more subdued in the earlier parts of the movie; Cheung is not so much comedy relief this time; and Yeoh is still clearly the one actress of the three capable of doing her own stunt work.

Circumstances bring the three together again, of course. The real action doesn’t start up until about an hour has gone by, and so the subtext carries the movie for quite awhile. It’s not as silly as Heroic Trio, which managed to combine surprising gore with comedic sequences. But while Executioners is darker than its predecessor, I didn’t find it as interesting. It might just be the lack of freshness; it doesn’t repeat the first film, but the Trio are no longer new to us. Still, the women are all great once again, with Mui a standout … with her impossible beauty and her solid emoting, this is really her picture. 6/10.