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April 2017

the 100 season 4 finale, and me

I am not one to indulge in direct public revelations about my life. My “memoirs” as represented on this blog consist largely of my thoughts on movies and television and music. I purposely don’t spend much time exposing my “inner self”. This is, perhaps, a character flaw. Certainly, I have a tendency to look away from the problems of others. I am too alienated from the world to make the proper connections to my fellow humans.

My wife had a tough day at work, and she asked if we could go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, which we did. Donald Trump did something stupid ... I can’t say what, in fact as I type this I don’t know what he did today that was different from the stupid thing he did the day before. Some of my friends are doing well, but others are struggling.

But, if I am being honest, the only thing that really mattered to me was that The 100 would be airing their Season Four finale.

In too many ways to count, the characters on TV shows and in movies are more real to me, more important to me, than the human beings I know. I know this isn’t right, but there it is.

There is room for both our interaction with the world and our experience of works of art. But I’m aware that there is an imbalance for me, that I’m more intensely involved with the art than I am with the real.

And so, as I watched the extremely tense season finale of The 100, I cared, deeply, about what might happen to the characters and their world. If you are unfamiliar with The 100, it takes place around 100 years after a nuclear apocalypse. Season Four has focused on an impending second nuclear apocalypse, and the attempts of the remaining survivors to cope with that situation. There was excitement in watching our heroes and heroines showing their strength in the face of the potential end of the human race. It must be said that part of the excitement came from knowing that the people behind The 100 have never been shy about killing off popular, important characters, so that no one’s survival was guaranteed. (This is not quite true ... there is one character, arguably two, that won’t be dying any time soon.) In fact, death on a major scale is an integral part of the series. Of course, the built-in premise is that only a few people survived the initial apocalypse. But as the show progressed, characters were forced to make decisions with no good answers that often meant pulling the plug on hundreds of people. This video, made after only two seasons had aired, shows how the main character, Clarke, has been responsible for the deaths of more than 900:

I am deeply invested in Clarke, and the other characters on the show, especially her relationship with Lexa ... although I am nowhere near as invested in that relationship as some fans:

OK, I lied. I was right there with those fans.

I don’t quite understand it. There are better shows than The 100 ... The Leftovers is probably the best of what is currently running, or The Americans. But none of those other shows connect with me the way The 100 does. More to the point of this post, nothing in real life affects me the way The 100 does.


casual: hulu's back in town

I dropped Hulu when Criterion moved their collection to FilmStruck. Thought I wouldn’t miss it, since I mostly used it for the Criterions, but today, the Hulu series Casual began its third season. Given that my wife was kind of hoping I’d re-up with Hulu so we could watch The Handmaid’s Tale, I gave in.

Based on the first episode of the new season, I am still not sure why I’m watching Casual, or even writing about it. I had a couple of things to say, but then I looked at earlier posts and saw I’d said it already:

There are television shows (and movies, for that matter) that my wife tends to avoid because they have no characters to “root for”. It’s not about a contest, it’s just that she likes to have a least one person who has some chance of becoming a good person, if they aren’t there already....

Casual, a Hulu series which just finished its second season, is about a woman who is breaking up with her husband and moves, with their daughter, into her brother’s home. Once we meet the siblings’ parents, we understand why they are having such trouble as adults ... they had a rough childhood in a psychological sense. And over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them.

Except ... the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. He tramples on the lives of others, always thinking that he is the one who is suffering (in fairness, he often is). I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that, using my wife’s criteria, he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas.

Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.

That first episode of the new season gave me no reason to change my mind. Yet here I am, back for another round.


stalker (andrei tarkovsky, 1979)

I recently took part in a poll asking for our favorite “road movies”, such films being loosely defined. My top five, in order, were Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless, L’Avventura, Y Tu Mamá También, and The Wizard of Oz. Topping the poll was Badlands. My own fave, Bonnie and Clyde, finished third. Second was Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which gave me an excuse to add another of his films to my list. I admit I was hesitant ... I haven’t exactly loved the ones I’ve seen, and Stalker is almost three hours long.

To recap: I liked Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, thought less of The Mirror, and have terrible memories of Solaris. For me, Stalker was closer to the first two than the latter two.

There is a plot to Stalker, but I don’t think anyone cared about it too much. It plays a bit like an artier, more philosophical version of Linklater’s “Before” movies. There are essentially three characters, known by their professions ... The Stalker (a guide who takes seekers through The Zone), The Professor, and The Writer (the latter two being the seekers). As they walk through The Zone, they partake in philosophical discussions about not only their own lives, but also the state of all humankind. It’s three hours of existential angst that sinks deep, not only because of the acting and dialogue, but also because of the look of the film, which is at times beautiful but it almost always stark. Add the setting, some kind of post-apocalypse world of blasted landscapes and leftover tanks that look like dinosaurs. It is bleak ... this is a bleak film, with little room for any kind of hope. The vagueness of the narrative, and the lack of explanation for what has happened to the physical world, forces us to narrow our focus to the discussions with the three men.

And it isn’t always easy to remain interested in those discussions. Some are better than others, but eventually you wish the damn thing was about an hour shorter.

As usual, Tarkovsky makes the film he wants, and leaves it to us to come to him ... he’s not coming to us. Take this segment from the film’s Wikipedia page:

Upon its release the film's reception was less than favorable. Officials at Goskino, a government group otherwise known as the State Committee for Cinematography, were critical of the film. On being told that Stalker should be faster and more dynamic, Tarkovsky replied:

“[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.”

The Goskino representative then stated that he was trying to give the point of view of the audience. Tarkovsky supposedly retorted:

“I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”

Fine aspirations. But my name is neither Bresson nor Bergman, which leaves me once again in the awkward position of trying to figure out a work by an artist who doesn’t care if I get it figured out or not. And this makes Stalker into one of those films that I admire much more than I actually like it. And my admiration is muted by Tarkovsky’s lack of interest in that admiration. Most critics can get past this ... it’s #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


music friday

Hat tip to Alex McNeil. A handful of classics buried in here, along with some oddities.

 

The Youngbloods, “Dreamer’s Dream

Victor Lundberg, “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Rotary Connection, “Ruby Tuesday

Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made to Love Her”. If you only watch one video, make it this one.

The Ronettes, “I Wonder

The Beau Brummels, “Play With Fire

Traffic, “Paper Sun

The Incredible String Band, “Way Back in the 1960s

The Kinks, “See My Friends

Lorraine Ellison, “Stay With Me


by request: biker boyz (reggie rock bythewood, 2003)

Bythewood and his wife, Gina Prince-Bythewood, have done a lot of work on television (most recently with Shots Fired). Prince-Bythewood has a bit more film work, including Beyond the Lights. What I’ve seen of their work is good enough to make me interested in what’s next. Reggie wrote and directed Biker Boyz, Gina was a co-producer.

Biker Boyz has one of those “everyone is in it” casts: Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Lisa Bonet, Larenz Tate, Terrence Howard, Kid Rock, Meagan Good, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Kadeem Hardison, Eriq La Salle, and more. All of the cast are good, even Kid Rock. But Derek Luke makes the movie worth watching, rising above the clichéd plot to deliver a powerful performance as an 18-year-old with daddy issues.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t up to what Luke offers. Based-on-a-true-story of underground biker gangs (they aren’t the Sons of Anarchy variety) who race each other, trying to be The King of Cali. Think The Fast and the Furious on motorcycles. Two things happen in Biker Boyz: people race motorcycles, and people try to get in touch with their inner selves. The latter is simple boilerplate ... kid’s father dies, King of Cali tries to watch out for him, kid rebels, etc. It’s nothing you haven’t seen 100 times before, which means those motorcycle races better be good. But they aren’t. They’re boring. All of them look the same, and because they are short (kind of like drag racing), the individual races don’t leave much room for the buildup of suspense.

Still, Derek Luke is terrific. He’s been around ... his first film was Antwone Fisher, for which he won several awards, and over the past fifteen years he’s been in all sorts of things, some of which I’ve seen ... playing Katie Holmes’ boyfriend in Pieces of April, turning up in a Tyler Perry movie, in the first Captain America movie, and lots more. And he’s been active in television, as well ... among other things, he had a short run in The Americans. So I’ve seen him, but I didn’t recognize him in Biker Boyz. Partly it’s that he was 29 years old when he played the teenager in Biker Boyz, but he looked the right age. So I find it hard to believe that Luke is now 43 years old, and he played an important part in 13 Reasons Why, which a lot of us have obsessed over the year. If I’d seen Biker Boyz in 2003, I’d say “look out for that Derek Luke, he’s good!” Instead, he’s been good all along and I didn’t notice.

Biker Boyz isn’t awful, but there is nothing new, and I could take it or leave it. 6/10.

And here’s a brief scene with Derek Luke from 13 Reasons Why:


don't breathe (fede alvarez, 2016)

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and his team, working on a budget of $10 million, turn out a picture that grossed more than $150 million. Don’t Breathe does such a good job of using atmosphere to deliver thrills that you don’t mind that the story is nothing new.

Three young burglars try to rob the house of a blind Army vet with money. It doesn’t go as planned. The blind man is very resourceful when it comes to dealing with intruders. He also has a few secrets. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a good job of parceling out information, so that we know the blind man suffered greatly from the loss of his daughter, but the ramifications of this are held back until just the right moment. This is standard stuff for horror films, but the movie is almost done before the predictability takes over.

Stephen Lang as the blind man is the best thing about Don’t Breathe. He is both frightening and sympathetic, at least at first, and he convinces us that he can do the physical acts he performs despite being blind. The three robbers aren’t the usual klutzy doofuses ... they just overreach, and aren’t expecting that blind man to be such a powerful opponent. It’s fun to see Dylan Minnette a year before 13 Reasons Why, and Jane Levy plays ... well, if you don’t know who she plays, you haven’t read much theory about modern horror. (Hint: think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.)

Everything is compact and efficient. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque offer some elegant visuals in the early going, taking full advantage of what amounts to an old-dark-house setting. And it doesn’t exactly peter out at the end. It’s just that the “surprises” come more and more quickly, so that you begin to expect them, which takes away the scariness. If Don’t Breathe sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. But it doesn’t transcend its genre, so it’s not a must-see if you aren’t a fan to begin with. 7/10.


music friday: can't get enough daily mix

This is “Daily Mix 4”. I think it’s safe to say this is a New Wave model.

Blondie, “Hanging on the Telephone.”

Patti Smith, “People Have the Power.”

Wire, “I Am the Fly.”

New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis.”

DEVO, “Jocko Homo.”

Talking Heads, “Wild Wild Life.”

Iggy Pop, “Bang Bang.”

Love, “No Matter What You Do.”

The Replacements, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

X-Ray Spex, “Identity.”


film fatales #27: wanda (barbara loden, 1970)

When I was a film major in the early 1970s, I wanted to make movies that combined fiction with a cinéma vérité approach. My first short film was decent enough ... it told the story of a recently-divorced woman, and nothing much happened. It was, I can see now, a bit like Wanda.

In 1970, Wanda was historic. It was the first feature film written, directed, and acted in by a woman. It was a low-budget picture ... Loden shot it with a crew of four including herself, and the only other professional actor in the film was Michael Higgins. It got some attention in Europe, winning Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice Film Festival. But it was mostly ignored in the States, and other than the occasional praise from film critics, it was little discussed.

There are many reasons for this, but it needs to be noted, as the film has finally been re-discovered, that even if Wanda had gotten more publicity at the time, it is unlikely it would have become a cultural icon the way other low-budget films of the day like Easy Rider did. For Wanda is aggressively uncommercial. Loden made the movie she wanted, and what she wanted was more a realistic slice of life than something like Bonnie and Clyde, to which it was compared (both being about robbers on the run). In one interview, she stated, “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” Later, she called Wanda an “anti-Bonnie and Clyde” picture.

Wanda is an admirable movie. Loden does an excellent job in the title role, and the look and feel of the film helps create a perfect vision of a woman with no prospects. Wanda’s life is one of desperation, but she acts in an almost casual manner, as if her acceptance of her life precludes any active attempts to change it. Bonnie and Clyde is partly about the heroes' desire to make their mark on the world, to be famous. Wanda is completely uninterested in this. And, to the extent Loden achieves her goals, Wanda the movie also seems uninterested in making a mark. Or rather, Loden wants an audience, but only if they come to her ... she is not going to mess with her vision just for a bigger audience.

Which is why I call Wanda an “admirable” movie. It isn’t often that we get such a successful film in terms of fulfilling the artist’s desires. But Loden’s anti-slick stance doesn’t leave a lot of room for a viewer to climb in. I was reminded of some of Agnès Varda’s films, like Vagabond and Cleo from 5 to 7, but they don’t close off the audience as they tell the stories of the central characters. Loden makes Wanda into an impressively unique film, but unlike something like Cleo from 5 to 7, I don’t have any strong desire to watch Wanda again right away. Once is enough, at least for now.

Wanda should be seen. And Loden’s life is interesting on its own (a good way to dive into this is via Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which recently featured an episode on Loden as part of Longworth’s “Dead Blondes” series). #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Here’s an artifact of the times: Loden on The Mike Douglas Show, with Mike’s co-hosts, John and Yoko (the last few minutes are John and Yoko performing):

To give context to some of the questions, Loden's husband was Elia Kazan.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


the southerner (jean renoir, 1945)

Jean Renoir’s peak was so great that it’s possible for the rest of his work to be a bit forgotten. There are hardly two better films than Grand Illusion and especially The Rules of the Game, both from the late-30s as Europe fell apart. Renoir ended up in Hollywood for a few years, and The Southerner is generally regarded as his best American film. That sounds like damning with faint praise, which is unfair, for if The Southerner is a notch below The Rules of the Game (as almost every movie is), it is still a rewarding look at a poor sharecropping family in Texas, remarkable for its matter-of-fact treatment of its characters. As usual, Renoir sidesteps being too judgmental with people ... there are no “bad guys”, just people who aren’t as good-natured as others. The farmers meet adversity, but it’s natural adversity ... the soil and the weather and the immense hard work necessary to grow things like cotton.

It is always clear that the farmers’ work is made more difficult by their lack of money, but Renoir doesn’t turn them into exaggerated stereotypes of the poor. They are just folks. He also refrains from turning the movie into a narrow screed. There is a social stance in the film, but it’s under the surface. As he often does, Renoir somehow manages to let us in on his own point of view without making it apparent.

Zachary Scott was an interesting choice for the male lead. He had only just begun in pictures, and his screen persona was formalized when he played a sleaze ball opposite Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. But The Southerner came out the same year as Mildred Pierce, and perhaps contemporary audiences had less trouble seeing Scott as a farmer, at least, compared to those of us who think of sleaze when we think of Zachary Scott. In fact, Scott was from Texas, and he gives an authenticity to the picture ... he seems like he belongs with that land. Betty Field plays his wife ... I’m not sure why her career wasn’t bigger, but here, she is believable out in the fields with her husband. The same can’t be said for Beulah Bondi, in her mid-50s when the picture was made, but seemingly playing a granny in her 80s. Every thing she does is annoying, and she is in a lot of scenes. If Scott and Field underplay, Bondi makes up for it by chewing the scenery.

Renoir got an Oscar nomination for Best Director (the only one he ever received, although he did get an honorary award when he was in his 80s). He lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend. Robert Aldrich worked as an assistant director, one of his earliest credits. These days, Aldrich is known as the guy Alfred Molina played in Feud.

The Southerner is more than just a movie you ought to see. It’s worthy in its own right. 8/10.