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November 2017

jesse james (henry king, 1939)

1939 was a famous year in the classic era of Hollywood film. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture, and many of them are still watched and loved to this day:

  • Dark Victory
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Love Affair
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Ninotchka
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Stagecoach
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Wuthering Heights

Gone with the Wind was by far the top grossing film of the year. But the movie which came in second place on that list did not receive a single Oscar nomination: Jesse James.

The movie starred a 25-year-old Tyrone Power as Jesse, with Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank. Also in the cast were Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Slim Summerville, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, Jane Darwell, and the ever-present John Carradine as Robert Ford. (When I say ever-present, I mean it ... Carradine was in nine pictures in 1939 alone, including Stagecoach. Only 33 years old, he had already appeared in more than 50 movies.) One of the "historical data assemblers" was Jesse's granddaughter, which may account in part for the way the movie plays loose with the facts.

In this movie, Jesse and Frank have the people's support because the Brothers fight against the railroads. Jesse turns bad, but it's always blamed on circumstances, and when he dies at the hands of Bob Ford, Ford is the villain, not Jesse.

It's claim to fame is largely due to a scene where Frank and Jesse leap, with their horses, off a cliff into a river. A horse reportedly died during the filming of the scene, leading to the American Humane Association becoming a monitor for Hollywood films. They protested the release of the film ... since it finished #2 at the box office that year, I'm guessing the protests didn't keep people out of the theaters.

The acting is good, with Nancy Kelly getting a couple of showcase scenes that might have worked as Oscar bait, except Vivien Leigh was already going to win as Scarlett O'Hara. Fonda is probably the best of the main cast (a sequel with Fonda came out the next year, The Return of Frank James). Given the way Jesse is turned into a folk hero, I couldn't help thinking about one of my very favorite movies, Bonnie and Clyde. That film worked hard on the myth ... think of Bonnie's poem ("You know what you done there? You told my story.") ... Jesse James is more matter-of-fact about it. It's also less stylish overall, and it doesn't come close to the masterpiece that is Bonnie and Clyde. But I suppose it gets credit for being mentioned in the same light. 7/10.

 


the fifth karen sisco award: sweet/vicious

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), Luck (2012), and after a break of a few years, Agent Carter (2016).

This year's winner actually started in November of 2016, but it finished in January of 2017, so I think it counts. I'm talking about Sweet/Vicious, about which I wrote:

Sweet/Vicious is easy to summarize, for anyone who is thinking of checking it out. The problem is, the summary tells you nothing about the execution. (This can be said of many works, of course.) I haven’t recommended it to anyone, even though it just finished its first season, if for no other reason than it is built around the kinds of triggers that many people will understandably avoid. For the set-up of Sweet/Vicious is that a rape survivor and her friend become vigilantes, fighting against those who assault women.

And it’s not always a serious drama....

Sweet/Vicious is an audacious show about a topic that is hidden far too often. It is never exploitative. And while it always returns to the story of survivors, it isn’t particularly preachy.

It got terrible ratings, and was cancelled by MTV (which is where it aired). So one season is all we'll get. And Sweet/Vicious was just finding its voice. The great Mo Ryan had a lot to say about the cancellation, and I'm going to quote her a bit here.

Sweet/Vicious” set itself apart in a very crowded TV landscape, and though it was barely promoted, it found a small but loyal audience. I grind my teeth at the thought of what kind of impression it could have made, and what kind of audience could have been built up, had MTV allocated even a little more money and promotional resources to it.

One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to the nervous system. You start watching a pilot, and a delightful feeling creeps over you: “Oh, this is good! Who made this? What is this? I want more!” 

“Sweet/Vicious” was one of those shows. It wasn’t just smart, funny and able to craft engaging stories on a very low budget. It wasn’t just an excellent vehicle for its talented stars, Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden. It was about something....

And, perhaps to the point of the Karen Sisco Award:

Sweet/Vicious,” handled in the right way, could have become a steady performer for the network, not to mention a media darling.... 

Regardless of whether you agree about the flood of questionable renewals, the fact is, it’s all too easy for shows, new or old, to get lost in the shuffle. But some shows that already made their mark deserve more life. Especially if they were just getting started. 

“Sweet/Vicious” was a gem. Some savvy executive should recognize that, and do something sweet — and smart.

Like many of the previous winners of this award, Sweet/Vicious was barely recognized during its run. Terriers still has fans, and it turns up on streaming services on occasion, and while Lights Out remains little-known, star Holt McCallany is on people's minds after his co-starring role in Mindhunter. And, of course, Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell still make cameo appearances in the Marvel world.

But I don't think Sweet/Vicious will be remembered, even as much as something like Lights Out. And that is especially sad because, as much as anything, Sweet/Vicious was a victim of bad timing. If it started in November of this year, it would be talked about all over social media. There would be arguments about whether its approach to vigilante justice was the right message for the #MeToo movement. But it would not be ignored. And I wouldn't be writing about it now as the winner of an award no one wants: a good show that was cancelled too soon.

The idea behind the Karen Sisco Award is to draw attention to these shows, so that you'll know they are worthy if you come across them down the road on streaming services.

Again, the winners:

  • 2010: Terriers
  • 2011: Lights Out
  • 2012: Luck
  • 2016: Agent Carter
  • 2017: Sweet/Vicious

Here are a few clips from Sweet/Vicious. Trigger warnings may apply.

 

 

 

 


uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2010)

First, I am informed that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". I'm going to take him up on that here, because I'd rather type three letters.

The IMDB entry for this film from Thailand offers the following anecdote. "Audience members at the Cannes Film Festival are notorious for their visceral reactions to films. Booing is commonplace as are walkouts. People started walking out of this film after the first 6 minutes."

I know some people react quickly to horrible violence on the screen, but there is virtually no violence in Uncle Boonmee. It is admittedly very slow moving. I can imagine some people starting Uncle Boonmee and realizing halfway through that it isn't their kind of movie and turning it off. But six minutes? That's a pretty extreme reaction. I had no problem making it through the movie, and I'm not always a fan of slow cinema, but if you are completely averse to this kind of movie and wonder if Uncle Boonmee is for you, just remember some people gave up after SIX MINUTES.

It's a much better movie than this suggests, but I just can't resist the anecdote.

Uncle Boonmee is structured using "six reels", each of which uses a different style. Honestly, if you fancy yourself a film scholar, you would probably find Uncle Boonmee endlessly fascinating. I tend towards narrative, and there is little traditional narrative here. Uncle Boonmee is dying, and as he reflects on his life, various people (now dead) from his past come to visit. Everyone treats this as ordinary and matter-of-fact. At times, the film is gently amusing ... in fact, "gentle" describes a lot of what we see. For myself, Uncle Boonmee is like entering into a world I know nothing about, which is a good kind of challenging. I never completely understood what I was seeing, but I wasn't quite lost, if that makes sense.

I'm not ready to run out and watch other Joe movies (although Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century are both on my endless list of Movies to Watch). But Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a gentle introduction to Joe's film world. #410 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #18 on the 21st-century list.  7/10.

Here are the first five minutes. If you want to see the "Cannes Sixth Minute", you'll have to watch the film.

 


music friday: 2017 and me

Everyone is offering up their Best-Of lists for the end of the year, so I'll try something similar for this week's Music Friday. I'm looking at the last 365 days rather than just 2017. According to Last.fm, four tracks are tied for the most played by me over the past year. Three of them make sense.

There's Van Morrison with "Brown Eyed Girl". Here he performs it in 1973:

And here's Bruce in 2014:

Next up is Dr. John the Night Tripper with "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya". When Dr. John's first album came out, it sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It makes a lot more sense now.

Here comes Judy Collins with "Suzanne". I saw her for my first-ever concert back in 1967. In this video from 1976, she duets with the song's writer, Leonard Cohen:

Here's Randy Newman's "Suzanne" for comparison:

I said three of these songs made sense ... all of them from the 60s. Here's the one that surprised me, even though I apparently listened to it a lot over the past year: Ry Cooder's "Trouble, You Can't Fool Me", from his 1979 album Bop till You Drop. It was written by Frederick Knight and Aaron Varnell (Knight later wrote Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell").

 


the modern world, kaiser edition

I tried to refill a prescription on the Kaiser website for pickup tomorrow. I got an error message. Since I had to go to pick it up anyway, I figured I'd go down today and refill it. This morning, I got a text message from Kaiser: my refill was ready for pickup. I went, picked it up, and tried to refill another med I needed. They were out of stock, so they sent my refill order to a different Kaiser pharmacy nearby.
 
I walked over and waited. Suddenly, I got a text message: your refill is ready. Maybe 20 seconds later, my name popped up on the "your refill is ready" board. So the text message was faster than the notification system in the pharmacy.
 
To be honest, the true Modern World irritation was having to jump through hoops to get pseudoephedrine while I was there, but that's a different, never-ending story.

mad max fury road: black & chrome edition (george miller, 2016)

There's no denying it: I thought Mad Max: Fury Road was a great movie. I gave it 10/10, which I rarely do for new movies. I had gone to see it in the theater on opening night, which is another rarity for me, but hey, I was excited. This also explains why I was intrigued by the "Black & Chrome" version of the film.

Miller wanted Fury Road to be in black and white, but the studio wasn't paying all of that money for what would look like an "art film". Miller returned to his idea after Fury Road made a lot of money and won six Oscars. Now, you can get Blu-rays with both versions, which is how I ended up watching Black & Chrome.

I've already had my say about Fury Road, and I saw little to change my mind in this viewing, so I'll address the ways the B&W approach made a difference. It's Miller who said B&W is relegated to "art films", and he notes that he saturated Fury Road with colors partly to counteract the tendency for post-apocalyptic films to look drained of color. So what was going to be B&W became instead super-colored. Still, Miller claims Black & Chrome is his preferred version, which if nothing else makes this quite the unique "director's cut".

I have to admit, Black & Chrome did look more like an art film than did Fury Road. But the most noteworthy thing was that after ten or so minutes, I completely forgot I was looking at something different. The revved-up appeal of the movie overwhelmed my capacity to "see" the black-and-white, and only occasionally did I catch myself thinking "hey, this version is different". Yes, Furiosa was powerfully ominous, but she was powerful in the color version.

Fury Road is such a great movie that even a drastic step like removing the color only results in a different great movie. It doesn't detract from the original, but I'm not convinced Black & Chrome is the final word. I feel certain that if I were to show the movie to a newcomer, I'd use the color version. Once again, though, 10/10. (The original is #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.)

Here is a comparison of the two versions:

 


creature feature saturday: return of the fly (edward bernds, 1959)

No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.

But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.

There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.

And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.

Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.

But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.

 


music friday: led zeppelin, "in the light"

In his review of Physical Graffiti for Rolling Stone back in 1975, Jim Miller spent a lot of time on Jimmy Page, both his guitar playing and his producing/arranging:

The album's — and the band's — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire....

His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument's sonic vocabulary.

He has always exhibited a studio musician's knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record ...

A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects ... But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding "clean" timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant's contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum....

Thanks to Page's production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds.... Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound.....

Physical Graffiti testifies to Page's taste and Led Zeppelin's versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page.

Hey, I'm not here to argue ... all of the members of Led Zeppelin made important contributions, but as a listener who wasn't in the studio to see exactly how their records were made, I've always given extra credit to Page, for the reasons Miller mentions and more.

Miller didn't think "In the Light" quite worked.

"In the Light," one of the album's most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.

Even here, the only band member he mentions is Page, although John Paul Jones was the person most responsible for the sound ... his synthesizer dominates. Led Zeppelin never played "In the Light" in concert, supposedly because Jones didn't feel he could properly match the synth playing on stage. (Both Page and Plant performed the song in concerts outside of Led Zeppelin.)

Let's say Miller is right that "In the Light" is fragmentary. In that case, it might be perfect as accompaniment for a movie or TV scene. And in fact, that's what made me think of it for this post, because it plays during the final scene of Season One of David Fincher's Mindhunter, the interesting Netflix series with Jonathan Groff, the great Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv. Here is part of that scene (spoilers, for those who care). The song had begun at the beginning, with Jones' synth a perfect background for the action. It picked up again at the end of the scene, as you see here. Most of the time, I get frustrated when a song is hacked up to fit what is happening on the screen. But the missing middle of "In the Light" here disposes of Miller's complaint that the song is fragmentary. The editing makes it more fragmentary, of course, but it makes sense, because it's not just a track on an album, it's the soundtrack for what we're watching.

Here is the complete "In the Light":

A sampling of the comments on YouTube:

Devon Palmer: The editing and use of this song made mindhunters ending so disturbing it was amazing.

Brian Merriman: I don't generally applaud when watching tv, but couldn't help myself on this one. Ten minutes of brilliance the equal of anything on a small or large screen in recent memory.

TwisTr71: Best execution of music fitting a scene I have ever experienced