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November 2017
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January 2018

what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

10:
The Killer
Jules and Jim
Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome Edition
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

9:
Don't Look Now
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Le Samouraï
The Magnificent Ambersons
My Neighbor Totoro
O.J: Made in America
Stories We Tell
The Straight Story
Sunset Blvd.
The Thing from Another World

8:
13th
20th Century Women
Andrei Rublev
The Dreamers
Fat Girl
Girlfriends
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
Hell or High Water
The Host
I Walked with a Zombie
Journey to Italy
Klute
Lady Bird
Melancholia
Okja
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Persepolis
Real Women Have Curves
The Southerner
Terminator 2
Them!
Three
To Walk Invisible
Train to Busan
Vengeance

7:
10 Cloverfield Lane
2 Days in Paris
The Amazing Mr. X
Bad Kids
The Bare-Footed Kid
Bedlam
The Black Cat
Blade Runner
Doctor Strange
Don't Breathe
Drug War
The Fly
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Gimme Shelter
High Noon
Ip Man 2
Jesse James
Johnny Guitar
Lifeline
The Lobster
Love Actually
Marshall
My Night at Maud's
The Panic in Needle Park
A Place in the Sun
Punch-Drunk Love
Road to Morocco
The Set-Up
Some Came Running
Spielberg
Stalag 17
Stalker
The Thing
To Catch a Thief
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Unknown
Village of the Damned
Wanda
Wonder Woman

6:
The Best Offer
Biker Boyz
Colossal Youth
Cop Car
Genocide
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The Haunted Strangler
In the Heart of the Sea
The Intervention
Jesus' Son
The Mad Monk
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
The Mirror
Rudderless
Shoot 'Em Up
The Time Travelers
The Vampire Lovers

5:
Return of the Fly
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop
Zabriskie Point

4:
Anything Goes
The Ghost Galleon
The Screaming Skull

3:
The Corpse Vanishes
Final Girl

2:
Godzilla's Revenge
Spies-a-Go-Go

1:
Electronic Lover

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)


film fatales #34: lady bird (greta gerwig, 2017)

Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a confident piece of work, a love letter to Sacramento (something I never thought I'd see). Saoirse Ronan looks close enough to Gerwig to bring the autobiographical elements to the forefront, and the film is populated by solid actors who seem to be enjoying the dialogue they have been given.

Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story, and there isn't a lot unique about the approach. Much like Real Women Have Curves (about which more in a bit), Lady Bird is less about breaking the typical rules of such stories than it is with introducing new people into the story, which has long been a place for young boys to become men. It is startling that even in 2017, the idea of a woman writing and directing an autobiographical tale about a young girl's steps towards being a grown up, is somehow surprising.

There is much to like about Lady Bird, and I don't mean to damn it with faint praise. But the critical response has been monumentally positive. For awhile, it held the record for the best-reviewed film in movie history on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing, Lady Bird has received 211 "Fresh" reviews and only one "Rotten"). It is wonderful to see a movie directed by a woman getting such acclaim. And Lady Bird is very good. But I confess I can't see why it has gotten such overwhelmingly positive reviews. Perhaps part of this is the methodology of the Rotten Tomatoes site ... a review like mine here would be counted as "Fresh", even if I'm not ready to declare the movie one of the all-time greats. It's hard to dislike Lady Bird, and the Rotten Tomatoes system may just reflect the fact that few people have complaints about the movie. Not all 211 of those reviewers think Lady Bird is the best movie of all time, but they all like it more than a little.

There is one big complaint, something I referred to when I wrote about Real Women Have Curves. Michelle Cruz Gonzales said Gerwig plagiarized Lady Bird from Real Women, finding the similarities too frequent to ignore. I encourage you to read her piece ("An English Instructor Asks: Did Greta Gerwig Plagiarize Lady Bird?"), along with a follow-up, "Of Lady Bird, Real Women Have Curves, and Revisiting the Question of Plagiarism". I don't think Cruz Gonzales is convincing on the question of plagiarism, but her arguments are crucial in identifying reasons why Real Women Have Curves seems to have fallen by the wayside while Lady Bird collects rave reviews. They are both coming-of-age stories about young girls. They both focus on the relationship between the girl and her mother. And both girls have similar dreams of going to college in the East. But, as one commenter on her blog wrote, "This is not a unique story." What is unique about Real Women is that the story takes place in a Latinx environment, just as what is unique about Lady Bird is that it is not about a boy, as is often the case, but about a girl. But pointing to the similar problematic relationships the girls have with their mothers is not evidence of plagiarism, just a recognition of where family drama often arises.

Having said all of this, Cruz Gonzales and others are right: Real Women Have Curves deserves more attention and a revisit, while there is something a bit bothersome about Lady Bird's impressive critical consensus. If you like Lady Bird, you should check out Real Women Have Curves. But they are different movies, and both are very good. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


music friday: pink, "beautiful trauma"

Asked to name my favorite song of 2017, I came up with "Beautiful Trauma". It's an unoriginal choice ... I am hopelessly behind on current music, but I always know what Pink is up to. The album Beautiful Trauma is fairly standard for Pink, top heavy with a few dynamite cuts and a lot of stuff that sounds good now but will likely be forgotten down the road. I prefer its predecessor, The Truth About Love, but that may be because I saw her twice on that tour ... she is such a fine performer, I tend to associate her songs as much with the live performances as the studio tracks.

"Beautiful Trauma" has a melody that sticks in my head ... I'm sure I've heard it before, although after a few months, I still don't know where it comes from. I like that Pink is saying "fuck" a lot in this song. She hasn't cussed as much since she started having kids. And one lyric stands out for me:

You punched a hole in
The wall and I framed it
I wish I could feel things like you

The official video is fascinating. It also gets bonus points for using the original, explicit lyrics.

Of course, Pink is famous for her acrobatic live performances, and she didn't disappoint when she sang the song at the American Music Awards, even if she didn't say "fuck":

We will be seeing her live in May, my sixth time. I can't wait.


film fatales #33: real women have curves (patricia cardoso, 2002)

Real Women Have Curves is an admirable, even necessary movie. I'm tempted to put that statement in the past ... Real Women was an admirable movie in 2002. But things have changed so little that even in 2017, there is something special about a movie that champions real women with real bodies, that tells an honest story of the Latinx community, that presents a working-class perspective.

Real Women Have Curves doesn't always escape the prison of relevance, but for the most part, its excellence overcomes any problems. Cardoso and co-writer Josefina Lopez, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, delineate the class structure under which its characters live, without being too heavy-handed. They are helped by the performance of America Ferrara, who made her movie debut here. Ferrara is sometimes too morose, but that's hardly a complaint ... she's playing a teenager, what do you expect. On the occasions when she breaks through, her smile lights up the screen.

In her essay, "From the New Heights: The City and Migrating Latinas in Real Women Have Curves and María Full of Grace", Juanita Heredia delves into the continuing importance of Real Women Have Curves:

Cardoso cautions young Chicanas/Latinas with these examples not to fall into the trappings of their bodies, which will change over time, to pursue a man; that is to say, rely on their biological role or “spitfire” image in exchange for their intellectual resources. Unlike many past Latina roles constructed primarily by Hollywood, Ana [Ferrara] prefers to follow a different path to achieve self-fulfillment, autonomy, and respect....
 
Cardoso breaks with the visual representation of subjugated Chicanas and Latinas on screen because she presents these women in regards to the politics of the body and mind across cultures, neighborhoods, and cities.
Still, there is something generic about Real Women Have Curves. Perhaps that's the point ... the movie demonstrates the way a standard storyline can be filled with someone other than white people. I can't say I've seen it all before, when the setting within the Latinx community makes the movie singular. But nonetheless, it felt familiar.
 
This is emphasized by a current argument about Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's breakthrough movie. Michelle Cruz Gonzales asks, "Did Greta Gerwig Plagiarize Lady Bird?" She sees too many similarities in the plots of the two films to be just a coincidence. "I’ll still argue that Real Women Have Curves is a better movie and that Greta Gerwig stole it, colonized it, and will get all the recognition for creating something new, something unique." The problem I have with this argument is that while it is true the movies have similarities, they come in part because of the reliance on a traditional storyline. There were coming of age stories before Real Women Have Curves, and there will be more after Lady Bird. Their singularity comes from placing that storyline within a new context. Real Women Have Curves benefits greatly from this context. 8/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


by request: bad kids

Two films, one a horror film from 1960, the other a recent documentary called The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2016). This was recommended by a friend who lives about five miles from the high school where the movie was filmed. Black Rock High School is a continuation school for troubled kids ... it's clear from the start that "Bad Kids" is meant ironically, they aren't actually bad. The style is a hybrid of cinéma vérité and more artsy documentary techniques. The star is the school's principal, Vonda Viland, who has a seemingly bottomless fund of caring that has only a little tough love. While the film looks at several students, a few get extra focus ... you might say they are the co-stars. You can't help but be affected by the lives of these kids, trying to improve their lives, lives that are impossibly hard. But despite the many scenes of the kids exposing their most raw emotions, we never really get to know them beyond the basics: he's the junkie musician, they're the teenage parents, she's the abused daughter. There is something universal about them ... I never came close to their level of suffering, yet I found myself thinking back to my own high school days and sympathizing with their plight. But the problems that landed these kids at Black Rock (poverty, family situations, drugs) are mostly just mentioned, as if the individual struggles are more important than the social milieu that fosters those struggles. And Viland is simply presented as a force for good in the lives of the students ... there are hints at what drives her, but they are never more than hints. I also wonder just how happy the kids were to be in the film in the first place. Does Joey, the talented musician who likes Voltaire but has a meth-head mother who drives her son into the same drug pit, enjoy having his personal troubles presented on film, as something to illuminate Black Rock for the viewers? The Bad Kids is effective as far as it goes, but it might have benefitted from a longer running time, perhaps even a multi-part television series. 7/10.

The other request was Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960). This was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, starring George Sanders as Professor Zellaby. The Damned of the title are Bad Kids, born after an unexplained event causes several women to become pregnant at the same time. The children are born premature, grow at an alarming rate, and develop extrasensory mind techniques. They work as a group, they have creepy-looking eyes, and they are up to no good. Zellaby, who is the "father" of one of the kids, wants to learn more about their extraordinary abilities. There is little attempt to make the kids serve as stand-ins for regular troubled youth. Instead, we see them get inside the mind of a grownup to make him kill himself with a rifle. The solution is a bit more extreme than that practiced by Vonda Viland ... hearing that the Soviets have solved a similar problem by nuking the kids, Zellaby duplicates their "success" by blowing up all of the kids in his village (and sacrificing himself in the process). The kids leave quite an impression on the audience ... 50+ years later, my wife and I still remembered those creepy eyes. And Barbara Shelley, the immortal scream queen of Hammer Studios, is Mrs. Zellaby ... she doesn't have much to do, but it's always nice to see her. Finally, a special shoutout to Martin Stephens, who plays the creepiest of the kids. 7/10.

 


on weed

It has turned out just about how I expected, although I didn't think it would take until I was 64 for it to happen.

Cannabis becomes "legal" in California on January 1. The San Francisco Chronicle included a 40-page pull-out section, "Green State", with information, awards, and (who'da thunk?) lots and lots of advertising.

They called my hometown, Berkeley, the "Best Cannabis City":

Berkeley blazed the trail to safe access to medical cannabis nearly two decades ago, and in 2017 set the curve for implementing recreational legalization locally. They were the first city in the state to create a pathway for its dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana in the New Year — part of a history of firsts. Berkeley adopted organic-like standards for medical cannabis years before the state considered it. The city was the first to formalize rules mandating free medicine for low-income folks, and Berkeley helped champion the entire dispensary model before patients had any stores to shop at. Personal gardeners and cannabis fans also enjoy some of the most relaxed rules in the state, making the East Bay city arguably the Best Cannabis City in California, if not the world.

And they gave an award to a favorite edible of mine, Kiva Confections:

The California edibles scene is extremely crowded, but sitting pretty at the top of them all is Kiva Confections. Founded in a San Leandro kitchen in 2010, Kiva now has 85 employees and a 13,000 square-foot factory in Oakland that serves 1,000 stores in California alone. Co-founder Kristi Knoblich Palmer hand-selects the company’s chocolate from wholesalers, and Kiva makes its own cannabis extract from cannabis trim that’s been tested for 280 pesticides. The hand-crafted, artisanal chocolate bars come in multiple flavors and strengths, and the chocolate-covered espresso beans and blueberries have garnered multiple awards and fans.

I'm fond of those espresso beans.

So, let's see. Special sections in the newspaper? Advertising featuring the cannabis industry? Awards? Did I mention advertising? Yep, it's pretty much how I expected it to be.

I'll be honest. I've never liked hunting down dealers, so although I've been smoking since I was 15 or so, I rarely have any lying around. And when medicinal became legal, I was too lazy to get a patient card. But on January 1, all I have to do is go to the dispensary.

 


tv 2017

My favorite/best TV shows of 2017:

A+ (the best show on TV):

The Leftovers. Perhaps some people quit watching before the end of Season Three. They'll catch up eventually, because The Leftovers entered the pantheon of great television series in its final season. Asks the big questions, but doesn't explain the answers. Focuses on the lives of the people doing the asking. Unafraid of taking creative risks (Mark-Linn Baker and Perfect Strangers?) Excellent acting across the board, with Carrie Coon besting anyone else on television, even herself (she turned up on Fargo this season).

 

A (never missed them, in real time):

The Americans. Still making us care deeply about two Soviet spies, even as they kill in the name of Mother Russia, even as they turn their own daughter into one of them.

Better Things. "Despite Adlon being the perfect center, she is very generous with the actresses who play her daughters." One of the best shows about mothers and daughters.

 

 A- (Flawed, but favorites, esp. The 100 and Sense8):

The 100. It is so much more than what we expected back in the beginning, that I, at least, forgive its trespasses.

Broad City. "Abbi and Ilana are actually showing signs of growing up a bit."

The Deuce. Another winner from David Simon. Each episode is better than the previous one, because everything builds, and all the pieces matter.

Mr. Robot. Frightening in its real-world parallels, with one tour de force episode and consistently intriguing visuals. The finale, with its return to the show's beginnings, was disappointing. Trivia note: Mr. Robot proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's OK to say "fuck" on the USA Network. Many times.

Outlander. Gorgeous, romantic, and a paean to the female gaze. I miss Battlestar Galactica, but Ron Moore lives on. Headline in Variety: "Apple Gives Straight-to-Series Order to Drama From ‘Outlander’ Showrunner".

Sense8. I may have looked forward to this show more than any other this year.

 

Honorable Mention (I watched 'em, I liked 'em):

13 Reasons Why. There is no reason for a second season.

Guerrilla. Great show, except I forgot I watched it, so maybe it was just good.

GLOW. Whatever you thought this show might be, it's better than that. (Video includes a couple of viewers commenting on the action. I'd pick a different scene, but Alison Brie deserves an Emmy just for this. Her character has chosen a bad-guy Russian, "Stoya the Destroya", for her wrestling character ... it takes place in 1985 ... and here she demonstrates her array of moves: The Hammer & Sickle, The Rough Toilet Paper, The Bread Line, Potato Soup, Vodka for Breakfast. Here is a great walk-through of the scene.)

Humans. "I’m not trying to damn Humans with faint praise. I like the show quite a bit. But it’s just another show about humans and machines that can’t quite live up to the greatness that was Battlestar Galactica."

Insecure. "Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecuresaid. 'In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."

Legion. The oddest show I watched all year. (No, I didn't watch Twin Peaks.) A must for fans of Aubrey Plaza.

Master of None. Took many chances along the way, both in representations of characters and stylistically.

Mindhunter. About the people who profile serial killers, which is the kind of show my wife watches, not me. But I was sucked in ... hey, I like Holt McCallany ... and it was worth it to see a story about serial killers before they were called serial killers.

Shameless. A few weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked people to name a show that had been consistently good for a long time without ever having a great season. I chose Shameless.

Sweet/Vicious. The Fifth Karen Sisco Award winner.

 

Can't Go Without Listing Them (I watched them, I liked them, if not quite as much as what appears above):

Agents of SHIELD

Ash vs. Evil Dead

Big Little Lies

Broadchurch

Casual

Fargo

Feud

Game of Thrones

Girls

Happy Valley

Jessica Jones

Orange Is the New Black

Orphan Black

SMILF

The Strain

Stranger Things

Supergirl

Taboo

The Tick

To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


music friday: bruce springsteen at winterland, 12/15/78

Hard to believe it's been 39 years since Bruce played the first of two nights at Winterland. I wrote about it back in 2002:

The first show, December 15, 1978, is widely bootlegged and is considered by fans to be one of the handful of greatest Bruce concerts of all time ... the Brucelegs website calls it "Probably the most famous show Bruce will ever do." The show was broadcast on local radio. I stood on the floor with the teeming masses; Robin sat with my brother David, his then-wife Bonnie, and perhaps other folks, in seats just off the floor. There was no aisle to walk up this time, so for "Spirit in the Night," Bruce just laid down on top of the fans, who passed him around, being thoughtful enough to roll him back towards the stage and the mic just in time for him to get the next verse. (OK, in 2002, the audience roll is a cliche, but in 1978, not a lot of artists were doing it.) He played "Prove It All Night" for more than ten minutes. He played "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." He played "The Fever," which at the time was known as a Southside Johnny song; he played "Fire," which was a Robert Gordon song before it was a Pointer Sisters song. He played "Because the Night," which at the time was a Patti Smith song. He played "Point Blank," which at that time wasn't KNOWN as a song. And among the encores were the Mitch Ryder Detroit Medley AND "Raise Your Hand" AND "Quarter to Three." It was a magnificent show, and since we were in different places in Winterland, it was the only Bruce show where Robin and I didn't sit together.

Some things have changed since 1978/2002. I've been to a few Bruce shows that Robin didn't attend. And while bootlegs were a big deal back in the day, and the first night at Winterland was highly regarded partly because the radio broadcast made for easy bootlegging, the most acclaimed shows from that period were all broadcast (there was a Cleveland show, and a Passaic show that are great and remembered).

Nowadays, every concert is almost instantly available ... I've been to shows where excerpts have hit YouTube before I get home. Bruce himself now has a site, http://live.brucespringsteen.net/, where you can buy properly mixed versions of various concerts. So, except for those of us who were there, Winterland '78 isn't a total standout ... the 1978 tour is often considered his greatest, but that's a lot of shows. (The second night of Winterland was great, too, but it wasn't on the radio.)

Here are a few samples of Bruce in 1978.