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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.


sense8 season two

In the early years of our marriage, I had the idea that we should buy a large table for the kitchen, so we could invite groups of our friends for dinner parties. We’d get six or eight folks, eat, and have great and friendly conversation. It was a vision of community that may have grown from the utopian dreams of hippiedom I had as a teenager.

The reality was, and is, that I’m riddled with anxiety and paranoia, such that I rarely even have six or eight people who I’d invite into my home. I know many more people than that, fine people, but my hermit-like existence no longer has room for those idealistic visions.

There was one time in my life when I participated in a communal enterprise. I took part in a journal called Bad Subjects, “Political Education for Everyday Life”. I wrote my first piece for them in 1992, and soon after joined the production team, on which I worked until approximately 2001. In that year, I wrote “Feel Like Going Home: Notes on Self-Marginalization”. Although it’s 16 years old, some of it still resonates for me.

Eight years haven't done as much for me as I'd hoped. Bad Subjects was kind enough to take me in. There was room then, and in fact there has always been room, in Bad Subjects for marginal folks. All we had to do was commit to the attempt, and we were accepted into the community. The beautiful utopian vision of Bad Community has made a difference in the lives of all who have participated in it, myself included. But I've been fooling others and myself; I've been posing, I haven't been a true believer. I thought it would happen, but so far I've fallen short. At times, I've misrepresented myself, but for the most part, I think it has been clear where I come from. The anti-utopian in a group of utopians, the non-believer in the midst of faith, the loner in the middle of the community. It's a sign of the magnificence of the Bad Community that there has always been a place for miscreants like me, and always will be. But Lord, I feel like going home.

I’m reminded of this because of a recent series of posts on Facebook, which began with a fellow Bad Subject from Australia saying that her memory of those times was jogged when she saw Ana Marie Cox on TV. (Cox had spent a year with Bad Subjects in the mid-90s.) While the journal had its start in Berkeley, once it went online its community became international, and an email list lasted for some time that featured lively debate amongst like-minded folks. Our Australian friend got the attention of others, and a new Facebook group was quickly formed so we could talk amongst ourselves once more. It is good to see that old communal spirit rise again.

But, I still feel like going home. As Pee-wee says,

Which leads me to Sense8. It’s hard to explain the series. Heck, I’ve just spent several paragraphs talking about everything except Sense8, and when I wrote about Season One, I spent the first half talking about Pink and Linda Perry, as if I can only come close to the show’s essence if I work in the shadows. In Sense8, eight people from across the globe share a connection that is odd enough to place the series in the sci-fi genre. They are “sensates”, linked to the others in their cluster emotionally and mentally. One way the connection works, that goes unexplained, is that they seem to be able to be there for each other in a physical sense. So if one sensate is about to be overpowered by a few bad guys, the sensate that knows martial arts will take over and kick some ass, without ever actually leaving her jail cell.

In a recent review of Season Two, Tim Goodman wrote, “For Netflix's ambitious drama Sense8, the path to entry – and the ability to truly appreciate what comes after – is deceptively simple. You have to give in to it. You have to go with it. ... Sense8 is probably better described as a series you experience more than understand”. It shares some of this with the recent Legion, another show where the pleasures did not come from “figuring it out” but by letting it wash over you.

What entrances me about Sense8 grows out of that unexplained connection among the cluster. I spent my earlier years wishing for community. I spent some time later dipping my toes in the river of community, but not making it to the other side. And now, I’m old and a hermit.

But when I see the characters in Sense8 merging, I experience the most beautiful community of them all, one that results from the blending of the eight into one. It is as if my long-ago dreams are manifested on my television screen.

And they do the impossible, taking the cliché song choice and making it new again:


rob sheffield, dreaming the beatles

Rob Sheffield writes about love. Look at the titles of his books: Love Is a Mix Tape, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke, and now Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World. Even On Bowie, the one book without the word love in the title, got right down to it in the introduction: “This book is a love letter to Bowie, a celebration of his life and his music.”

When asking yourself, “Do we really need another book about The Beatles?”, the answer should be “Yes, when it’s written by Rob Sheffield.” I can’t say I came to his books about Duran Duran, karaoke, and Bowie because I was a fan of any of those topics. But I’m a fan of Sheffield, and he has never let me down, to the point where now I care about Duran Duran et al.

Another thing I like about Sheffield is his age. He was born in 1966. The first batch of writers about rock music were of a different generation: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis. (In terms of personal influence, I’d include Ralph J. Gleason, born in 1917.) Many of them came to our attention in the 70s ... “rock criticism” didn’t quite exist until then. But they were people who had lived when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan for the first time. Thankfully, there are many great writers about music from Sheffield’s generation: Ann Powers and dream hampton come to mind. But their perspective is drawn from the times in which they live, and with pop music, the teenage years are especially important. As an example, Sheffield was 15 when Duran Duran’s first album was released. When I was 15, the White Album was released.

So Sheffield wasn’t “there” during Beatlemania. But to the extent this distances him from the subject, he is able to offer a new look. And he makes a great case in Dreaming the Beatles that the time of The Beatles has never left us. He has lived with The Beatles for most of his life ... in the book, he describes seeing Help! when he was five (“They entered my life”), and the enthusiasm with which he writes about The Beatles to this day demonstrates how they have never left his life.

Sheffield’s books all merge with memoir, and I guess if that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere. In this case, though, it’s even more appropriate than usual, for the reasons I’ve already stated: He was only 4 years old when The Beatles broke up, so unless he’s doing some straightforward “and then they recorded this” type of book, his personal relationship with the band is crucial. Having said that, he takes the subtitle seriously. He tells the story, not just of his own relationship to The Beatles, but to the whole world’s love affair with the group.

While he writes a lot about the relationships between the band and their fans, he also talks about the relationships within the band, and not always by simply citing biographical trivia, as when he discusses a favorite of mine, “There’s a Place”:

You can hear John woke up with a stuffy nose; you can also hear how nervous he and Paul are, their voices quavering as they stretch out the vowels, “plaaaace” and “looow” and “goooo,” Ringo urging them on with his drum crashes. It’s another Buddy Holly homage, one they wrote on their guitars in the front room of Paul’s dad’s house on Forthlin Road. John and Paul sing about escaping to the place you go when you feel low – in your mind, where you hear the voice of the girl who tells you things you want to know, the place you go to remember the things she said that swim around your head, the place you talk yourself out of the fears you wouldn’t confess to your closest male friends. Except here are John and Paul, trading off the confession out loud. It’s done and dusted in under two minutes – no time for waffling or kidding around, the voices say, this is it, this is how I feel, let’s go, let’s tell it.

It’s a close reading that doesn’t depend solely on the lyrics, it’s a close reading that encompasses the performance. This happens throughout the book ... every time he points out something going on in a particular track, you instantly want to hear it. And when someone can help you hear a Beatles’ song with a fresh ear, well, that’s a lot harder than it seems.

Sheffield spends much of the second half of the book talking about the post-Beatles years of the four lads. This makes sense, since his own relationship with the band began after they’d broken up. But it also reflects the ways The Beatles as a band are still in our dreams ... just because they weren’t together after 1970 didn’t mean they no longer mattered.

Love Is a Mix Tape may always be my favorite of his books. But Dreaming the Beatles is right up there with the others.


the best offer (giuseppe tornatore, 2013)

I try to avoid spoilers, and sometimes I am very successful. I had no idea what The Best Offer was about. I knew it had Geoffrey Rush, and I knew it was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, who also made a film I liked OK, Cinema Paradiso, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I didn’t know the plot. I didn’t even know what language it was in.

I mention this because the biggest problem with The Best Offer is its almost complete lack of originality. It harkens back as far as The Blue Angel (1930), through the film noir years, all the way up to 2013. The story of an aging man falling for a young, beautiful, and mysterious woman has been told many times, and for The Best Offer to stand out, it needs to either do the same old thing in an excellent manner, or to present a twist or two to keep our attention. It does neither.

And yet the truth is, I barely noticed these things until I was well into the film, and I suspect this was because I came to it cold. I wasn’t thinking, “This better be as good as The Blue Angel”, because I was barely thinking anything at all. I took the movie at face value, and maybe that’s the best way to approach any work of art.

But gradually, I saw the film settling into the patterns of a dozen movies from the past, and the experience of watching became rather empty. If I’d known more about the film in advance, I might have seen the emptiness much sooner, but I was intrigued ... until I wasn’t.

It looks luscious, and Rush is good enough to make the silly plot believable. Donald Sutherland wiggles his eyebrows occasionally. Sylvia Hoeks didn’t do much for me as the young apple of Rush’s eye. For all of the attempts at mystery, ultimately I didn’t think it was mysterious at all, other than the fact that nothing makes sense.

Ennio Morricone did the music, if you’re a completist when it comes to his work. And there is nothing awful about The Best Offer, if you want to while away 131 minutes. But I’m going with 6/10.